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CSIRO Launches New Lunar Testbed

Image Credits: CSIRO, Press Release

Researchers and businesses preparing to head to the moon can test their technologies in a new facility established by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO. The purpose-built facility in Brisbane provides a Moon-like environment for testing and evaluating rovers and related equipment with an initial focus of exploring lunar terrain and resources.

Apollo program astronauts observed first-hand the challenges of working on the moon. One of those challenges was the fine abrasive dust that covered their spacesuits and instruments. CSIRO’s new In-situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) Facility includes a sealed dust area to safely handle and manage various types of lunar regolith simulant – fabricated moondust – with properties like those on the surface of the moon.  The facility also incorporates smaller tanks and pits for smaller-scale tests and a mission control room to remotely monitor rovers, payloads and related equipment.

CSIRO Space Program Director Dr Kimberley Clayfield said the facility is an excellent addition to the suite of facilities CSIRO manages and will complement CSIRO’s space research and the activities of the Australian space sector. “Our ability to simulate the lunar terrain at this scale is an exciting advancement for the development of space technology in Australia.”

The facility is the latest example of the agency’s commitment to stimulating innovation, supporting industry and solving the greatest challenges through space science, technology and exploration. CSIRO is looking forward to working with researchers and businesses from across the space sector to test their technology and systems for future space missions. Several international space agencies and companies are planning new missions to the Moon’s surface to identify materials that could support further exploration and potentially habitation.

The CSIRO ISRU Project Leader explained how the lunar regolith is both the solution and one of the major challenges facing these robotic missions. Scientists know the regolith will contain useful materials like oxygen that could be used for fuel or breathable air, however, they need to first identify these elements and develop ways of extracting and processing them. The challenge is the moondust is powdery, sharp and electrostatically charged so it sticks to everything and has the potential to damage the technology sent to investigate it. The new facility offers technology developers the opportunity to test their equipment closer to home, in a safe environment to find solutions to this dusty problem.

The facility is located at CSIRO’s Queensland Centre for Advanced Technologies, home to other testing facilities including the robotics playground where CSIRO’s robotics team trained for their silver-medal performance in the recent DARPA Subterranean Challenge. “Integration and access to other facilities and equipment on site is another advantage that will benefit future users of our facility,” CSIRO ISRU Project Leader said.

Despite significant contributions to advances in astronomy and international space endeavours, the Australian local space sector is young, compared with its global peers. The sector generated approximately $4.8 billion in 2018-19, which is equivalent to 0.25% of Australia’s GDP, up from an estimated $3.8 billion in 2015. By comparison, the revenue of the space sector in Canada is equivalent to 0.4% of GDP, and globally space sector revenue is equivalent to 0.5% of GDP.

In leading space nations, it is higher. Space sector revenue in the United States is equivalent to 1.0% of GDP, while the UK space sector’s revenue is equivalent to 0.7% of GDP. Recognising the rapid growth of the global space industry and its economic potential for Australia, the Australian Government established the Australian Space Agency (the Agency) in July 2018 to support the sector and drive further growth.

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