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Watch this space

6 April 2017
As the world becomes smaller and the environment more damaged, the universe beckons

The lack of moon missions doesn't mean space exploration has been standing still. University people are currently involved in everything from deploying satellites, to developing rocket engines for missions to Mars, and finding extra-terrestrial life.

University of Sydney scientists are on the frontline of a new space age.

Their leading-edge investigations include searching for alien life in the far reaches of the solar system; a revolutionary rocket thruster that could take a spacecraft from Earth to Mars without carrying a heavy load of fuel; and a new breed of miniature satellites, crammed with sensors.

The satellite project has energised and enthused Australia’s space community because the satellites are the first Australian-built spacecraft to be launched in 15 years.

Dr Paddy Neumann's ion drive could one day take astronauts to the red planet, Mars.

Dr Paddy Neumann's ion drive could one day take astronauts to the red planet, Mars.

Barely the size of a loaf of bread and known as CubeSats, the satellites’ miniature sensors are designed to investigate the Earth’s largely unexplored lower thermosphere, between 80 and 700 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. The University of Sydney-linked CubeSats will have instruments to gauge the temperature and density of the thermosphere’s plasma, vital data for improving the operation of radars and GPS equipment.

The University’s Professor Iver Cairns (BSc ’83 PhD ’87) has been central to Australia’s mini-satellite research. He instigated a collaboration between the three Australian universities that built the tiny satellite, INSPIRE 2, as part of a global space project known as QB50. For the project, 27 nations built satellites for launching into space from the International Space Station. Of the 50 CubeSats, three are Australian.

In the Physics Building Professor Iver Cairns sits on the box he used to send the INSPIRE-2 satellite to Holland

In the Physics Building Professor Iver Cairns sits on the box he used to send the INSPIRE-2 satellite to Holland.

Professor Cairns is now pushing for the next step, a government-funded training centre focused on CubeSats and their applications. “It’s really exciting and it’s a major step,” he says of INSPIRE 2, which was put together without any Australian Government funding, or indeed, the training centre.

“People have been saying for ages that Australia should be showing it’s a high-tech nation. One way to do that is to have a real space effort, one that is world class and is able to do things well,” he says. “We know we can do it.”

Meanwhile, Dr Paddy Neumann (BE(Aerospace) ’07 BSc ’07 BSc (Adv) ’07 MSc ’09, Phd(Research)(Cotutelle) ’15), is working on a trip to Mars. His research focus is on a space craft engine known as an ion drive, which uses electricity from solar panels to rip ions from a piece of metal. As the ions fly out of the back of the craft, the craft is pushed forward. The ion effect is way too gentle to be of any use driving a rocket up from Earth, but in weightless, frictionless space it is a highly effective and efficient means of propulsion.

Neumann has attracted international attention because his ion drive has broken previously published thrust efficiency records by an astounding 30 percent.

Professor Marcela Bilek works to maximise the fuel efficiency of the ion drive

Professor Marcela Bilek works to maximise the fuel efficiency of the ion drive

Unlike traditional rocket engines, which use a chemical fuel burn for thrust (this remains the only type of engine that can push a rocket out of the Earth’s atmosphere), the ion drive can be fuelled by a range of different metals, including titanium, bismuth and carbon. In his testing, Neumann found magnesium to be the most efficient. As a side benefit, this opens up the possibility of recycling magnesium from space junk currently in the Earth’s orbit.

“We believe we could send a payload from low Earth orbit to low Mars orbit in a couple of months – which compares rather favourably with the chemical rocket transfer of six to nine months,” Neumann says with his bright, natural enthusiasm.

Neumann has worked on the ion engine concept for years, beginning with his third-year special project, through his honours degree, master’s degree and doctorate. The idea germinated during his third-year special project when he was measuring the speed of ions being discharged from titanium plasma: “And I thought, that’s pretty fast, we could probably build a rocket out of that.”

Seamus Thomson wants to use his biomedical engineering skills to advance space exploration

Seamus Thomson wants to use his biomedical engineering skills to advance space exploration.

Physics professor Marcela Bilek (BSc ’91) designed the ion source that Neumann used for those tests, and she has encouraged and advised him ever since. Along with Professor David McKenzie, Bilek is a co-inventor of the intellectual property. “We’ve just published an article, earlier this year, showing that – for magnesium in particular – we have a specific impulse that’s higher than anything that’s been recorded in the literature,” Bilek says. “In other words, you get a lot more thrust out of every kilogram of fuel you carry.”

Neumann has now established a company, Neumann Space, to further develop the ion drive, and he has signed up with aerospace manufacturer Airbus to get the engine space-tested on the International Space Station.

Halfway around the world, in California, Sydney University student Seamus Thomson (BE(Hons) ’16 BMedSc ’16) is looking for extra-terrestrial life. Working with NASA, he is focused on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s icy moons. Originally offered a 10-week internship with NASA, Thomson obviously made an impression as he was asked to stay on.

With degrees in engineering and medical science, Thomson is working on a doctorate in biomedical engineering and sees a future exploring how medical applications might be used in space.

Dr Neumann works on campus in the room where Australia's first-ever computer used to be housed

Dr Neumann works on campus in the room where Australia's first-ever computer used to be housed.

Thomson notes there are many similarities between biomedical engineering and space technology, especially with regard to life-detecting sensors. Biomedical engineering instruments must be accepted by a living body and care needs to be taken to ensure they don’t introduce pathogens into that body. Similarly, with space technology, immense care is needed to ensure planetary bodies are not contaminated by Earth pathogens.

“You have to make sure that you’re not detecting life that you brought with you on the sensor,” he explains. “You want to detect something unique to that environment.”

There are four key requirements for a celestial body to support life, he says: organics, an energy source, nitrogen and liquid water. “Very few objects in our solar system have good data that ticks the boxes for all four of those, except for Enceladus, which has an ocean under the surface and big, icy plumes being ejected,” he says. “NASA has determined that Enceladus has the best chance of life, or that it once had life.”

As space offers new opportunities for resources, technological advances, scientific understanding, and even tourism, University researchers are staking their place in that vast, final frontier.


Written by Sian Powell
Photography by Louise Cooper

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