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Australia to build first space telescope

The basement of the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne may just be the location where Australia’s first space telescope will be built.

According to a recent report, it was a few months ago when a team of scientists and researchers at Melbourne took delivery of the first pieces of hardware for the Skyhopper.

Australia has entered a new chapter in the exploration and understanding of space by creating a National Space Agency.

Inspired by this spirit of exploration, the University is leading the design of SkyHopper.

It is a space telescope that will allow discovery of potentially habitable Earth-sized exoplanets found outside the Earth’s solar system but within the galactic neighbourhood.

It will be capable of measuring the distance to stars that are exploding and collapsing into black holes at the edge of the observable universe.

With commercial space companies now providing low-cost hardware and launches for small ‘cube satellites’, all these goals are suddenly becoming realistic for the University to build and launch the space telescope.

To date, space telescopes have been expensive, challenging and time-consuming to design, build, and operate.

But technology is evolving. In the past five years, giant steps in technological innovation have made space-rated hardware smaller, cheaper, and commercially available.

The industry is being disrupted by the ‘Space 2.0’ paradigm, with CubeSats being the driving force behind this shift.

CubeSats are nanosatellites weighing between one and 20 kilograms with a standardised form factor, allowing them to fit in a commercial rocket’s cargo hold.

Hundreds of CubeSats are launched each year and a growing number of them are designed and built in Australia.

Last year, the first three Australian CubeSats went into orbit and several Australian universities, research institutions and private companies are actively developing CubeSats.

In late 2015, the idea for the SkyHopper mission was born alongside the recognition of the potential of CubeSats.

Keeping an infrared camera cooled to 130°C below freezing has never been done on a CubeSat.

In order to test it, two miniaturised cryo-coolers that are operating in a vacuum, on a test bench at the School of Physics, will simulate in-orbit conditions.

The aim is to identify which one is most suited to form the core of SkyHopper’s thermal management subsystem, which is the on-board ‘super freezer’ that will keep the camera cold.

If that seems challenging already, there is also the key requirement of 24/7 communication with the satellite, as well as sufficient bandwidth to download four megapixel pictures.

The University is aiming at designing and building a tiny sibling to Hubble, with a 15 centimetre mirror that can fit inside a shoebox.

But compared to the Hubble, SkyHopper will be a thousand times faster in responding to a command in order to perform time-critical observations.

Moreover, the tiny but powerful satellite will capture infrared light with a precision beyond what is possible from the ground.

The plethora of goals is bold. The team wants to break new ground in the detection and characterisation of exoplanets orbiting around low mass stars.

Furthermore, the team wants to study stars and galaxies at the edge of the observable universe by measuring the so-called cosmic infrared background that encodes the collective information on all dust particles, stars, and galaxies in the universe.

Another goal is to capture live events as they happen. The telescope should be capable of interrupting an observation to hop to locations where high-energy and gravitational wave observatories spot stars collapsing into black holes.

The infrared light associated to these explosions can then be characterised and can explain more about what is happening and how far their distance from earth is.

After more than two years of preliminary design study and modelling, the team is confident that the project will take off.

In that span of time, the team has grown from four to 30-plus members coming from major Australian universities active in astronomical research, and from several international partners in Europe and the US.

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