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UniSA’s new space tech to boost the power of small satellites

Two key UniSA research development projects that will add to the capacities of small satellites have won support in the latest round of South Australian Defence Innovation Partnership Cooperative Research Grants. UniSA secured two out of six of the grants and is a collaborator on three other grants awarded.

Research Fellow at UniSA’s Future Industries Institute (FII), Dr Kamil Zuber, says the development of freeform optics for small satellites will expand intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity and capability for space satellites.

The emerging technology of freeform optics, where mirrors can be designed and manufactured to take on complex shapes, allows for the production large fields of view in smaller packages – which is a powerful adaptation for the new generation of small satellites that are in rapid development, Dr Zuber said.

Moreover, with the capacity to produce these mirrors via additive manufacturing – also known as 3D printing – this is a technology with the potential to transform the way space missions are designed.

UniSA researchers will also collaborate with DST, industry partners and the University of Adelaide to prototype and validate durable coatings for freeform optical components used for small space satellites.

Achieving a stable, durable coating in the harsh low earth orbit environment that is impervious to radiation and atomic oxygen is one of the challenges that this project aims to address, Dr Zuber noted.

The second project being led by FII Research Fellow, Associate Professor Craig Priest will address concerns in the Space Capabilities (Defence White Paper 2016) to develop satellite systems that can withstand and respond to adverse events. With several hundred small satellites launched every year, space is becoming crowded and hostile, Assoc Prof Priest said.

Satellites must be smaller, more agile, and more energy-efficient, with onboard thrust mechanisms that also have minimal hardware. Their research will be focussed on nanofluidic thrusters which can offer a solution to those challenges. And with the DST Group, the University of Adelaide, and industry partners work will focus on commercialising the devices for defence, including manufacturing and testing of prototypes.

Assoc Prof Priest participated in the University’s business incubator program for space startups, Venture Catalyst Space in 2019 which helped define his business model and connect his team to the industry.

Another two recipients of the grants, Canadian start-up and a local start-up were also both past participants of the Venture Catalyst program run by UniSA’s Innovation & Collaboration Centre. Each research development project has received $150,000 to push the frontiers of scientific knowledge in the space sector.

UniSA is also a key partner in three other successful grants awarded in the latest round of funding, boosting the University’s contribution to innovation in the defence and national security research and development.

UniSA Director Defence and Space, Matt Opie says the outcomes from this round are a testament to the University’s capability in defence and space-related research.

He noted that these collaborations will give Australia a technology edge, creating new opportunities for partnership and industrial engagement to build knowledge in defence and space science. Support for these projects contributes to a strong research base, enabled by South Australia’s nationally significant infrastructure.

Designed to generate defence-related research and development activity in South Australia between industry, universities and government, the Defence Innovation Partnership is a collaborative venture between the South Australia Government, Defence Science and Technology Group, and South Australia’s three universities.

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