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Curtin Uni Develops Radio Tech to Identify Debris in Space

Image Credits: ICRAR Curtin via Curtin University, Press Release

Researchers at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) have developed a new sensor system that is portable and low-cost, designed to identify space debris, satellites, and aircraft. The technology aims to detect objects in low Earth orbit, a zone where most of the space debris is concentrated. The sensor system utilises a combination of a compact phased array antenna and digital signal processing to identify the space objects’ characteristics, such as their trajectory, velocity, and position. This system is small enough to fit into a suitcase, making it a portable solution for space surveillance. With its ability to detect and monitor space debris and other objects, the sensor system could contribute to making space exploration and satellite launches safer and more efficient. The Space Domain Awareness (SDA) project, a portable and flexible passive radar system, has been developed by researchers at ICRAR’s Curtin University node. This technology is part of a Collaborative Research Grant funded by the Government of Western Australia’s Defence Science Centre. By leveraging the technologies used in radio astronomy, the SDA project creates an inexpensive and adaptable solution for space surveillance. The passive radar system can detect and monitoring objects in low Earth orbit, including space debris, satellites, and aircraft. In contrast to traditional radar systems, which intentionally emit a known signal, a passive radar system uses third-party transmissions, such as broadcast radio and TV signals, to identify objects while concealing its own presence. The project’s lead researcher, Associate Professor Randall Wayth from ICRAR-Curtin, stated that the 32-antenna system could be configured for several different applications. The team’s system is highly portable, sensitive, and invisible to many typical or commercial detection systems, making it ideal for deployment in remote environments and Defence scenarios. By leveraging existing radio astronomy technology, the researchers developed a prototype of a portable sensor system that can be used for discreet surveillance, either as a stand-alone system or as part of a larger network. The technology has been adapted from radio astronomy for use in detecting objects in low Earth orbit, including space debris, satellites, and aircraft. The prototype of the portable sensor system developed by ICRAR is the result of utilizing the knowledge and technologies developed in the field of radio astronomy and applying them to a defence application. The expertise developed in radio astronomy, the study of the universe’s electromagnetic radiation, has allowed for the creation of a system that can detect and monitor objects in space, such as satellites and space debris. This application of radio astronomy technology to a defence purpose highlights the potential for cross-disciplinary collaboration and the benefits that can be achieved by applying existing technologies in new and innovative ways. Motivating and stimulating the development of a Western Australian manufacturing supply chain for critical components was a crucial consideration for the project. ICRAR’s connections with Western Australia’s engineering and manufacturing industries were leveraged to respond to the emerging and current capability needs of the defence sector, while supporting local jobs and the manufacturing industry in WA. This approach has allowed the project to foster the growth of local industry and highlight the potential for collaboration between research organisations and local manufacturing. The project has provided a path toward a larger, fixed, and dedicated SDA facility that will be built and operated in partnership with a Australian engineering services and technology solutions company. Construction began at the tech firm’s Peterborough site in South Australia, using a receiver system based on the design, development, and testing of the portable SDA system. The research team partnered with the WA Government’s Development WA, to deploy the portable SDA system to the Australian Automation and Robotics Precinct (AARP) at Neerabup. This collaboration raised awareness of the state’s research and development capabilities in the field of SDA and provided a showcase for WA Government facilities designed to support research and development. ICRAR is in ongoing discussions with industry and government collaborators to achieve real-time data processing capability, improving the system’s potential to address various defence and security challenges. This has significant potential to enhance the safety and sustainability of space exploration and protect national security interests. This research was supported by the Defence Science Centre, an initiative of the State Government of Western Australia.


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