As the Melbourne Space Program prepares to launch our inaugural CubeSat, the ACRUX-1, into space in the not-too-distant future, we decided to take a look at the past and future Australian satellites that served (or will serve) an important role in shaping the nation’s involvement in space activities.
There is no better place to start than from the beginning. WRESAT (Weapons Research Establishment Satellite), launched on 29 November 1967, was Australia’s first satellite. It was built by a group of 20 University of Melbourne students, all aged in their 20s. The 45kg microsatellite was launched from Woomera in South Australia with the help of an American rocket called Sparta.
Whilst in space, it conducted scientific research and measurements of the solar radiation, solar atmosphere temperature, the density of molecular oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, and the faint ultraviolet halo that surrounds the Earth at night. After two weeks, the battery died and the satellite stopped operating; but it remained in orbit until January 1968. It made over 600 orbits around the Earth in total before burning up upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
WRESAT was a special achievement in Australia’s space history. It was not just the first satellite Australia launched, but it also entitled Australia as the third nation in history to ever launch a satellite from its own territory, and the seventh to ever launch one into space.
This radio satellite was built by science and engineering students of the University of Melbourne. It is a true triumph of youthful spirit and curiosity that broke numerous records. For instance, it was the first amateur satellite to be remotely controlled by amateur radio operators, and the first to be constructed outside of the United States.
Also, it was probably the only satellite to be built using bed springs and sticky-tape! The students used bed springs as a spring release mechanism, and tapes on the satellite’s antennae due to their small budget of AUD$600. As a collaboration between the Melbourne University Astronautical Society and the Melbourne University Radio Club, Australis-OSCAR 5 was built by (at least) seven students with no space engineering experience. They had to endure a two-year waiting period to secure a launch with NASA. When they finally made contact via radio, they convinced NASA to launch their innovative creation.
It was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on 23 January 1970. It functioned well in space, but is no longer operational as of 9 March 1970. Now it simply orbits the Earth as a space debris.
This CubeSat was launched on November 26, 2017. It marks an important stage in the development of Australia’s space defence capability, as it is the first satellite ever made in Australia for defence purposes. Buccaneer is a joint venture between the University of New South Wales, Canberra and Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group. The Buccaneer will be a program of two 3U CubeSats, both about the size of shoeboxes. The CubeSat that was recently launched is a “test” of the satellite’s technologies. It was intended to see what works and what doesn’t before sending their next CubeSat, which will perform the main mission when it launches this year. The experiments are designed to help to calibrate Australia’s Jindalee over-the-horizon-radar network.
The Buccaneer CubeSat will also be monitoring and predicting the orbits of space objects, including space junk. Additionally, it will help us understand the movement of space objects and improve our ability to forecast their movements so that collisions in space can be avoided. Space collisions are hazardous as they can damage expensive and important technologies in space that we depend on for security, GPS technology, and fast internet access. The overall aim of this CubeSat venture is to increase Australia’s capability to plan and perform satellite missions. So, the Buccaneer will be doing some really important work, which includes safeguarding space collisions, and enhancing Australia’s space and defence capabilities.
The Buccaneer launch. Credit: UNSW Canberra
Australia clearly has an impressive history of satellites — big and small; and we have a drive and propensity to get crafts into space. This will only increase as we move towards establishing our first ever space agency.
Stay tuned for a part two with more of currently-in-orbit and soon-to-be-launched Australian satellites!