Launching us into the final frontier: 50 years of space research at Melbourne

Image: Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center, via Flickr, Creative Commons
Image: Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center, via Flickr, Creative Commons

The University of Melbourne Space Program (UMSP) is well on its way to establishing itself as a driving force in the development of cutting edge space technology within Australia.

In late 2014, several engineering students formed a group with the idea to build and launch a satellite into low earth orbit. Less than a year later, the team has evolved into a professional and comprehensive organisation within the University of Melbourne, consisting of over 60 primary members – and over 140 in total – from faculties ranging from the Melbourne School of Engineering to the Melbourne Law School, the Melbourne Business School and the Melbourne School of Government.

The program is currently making progress in the development of satellite and supporting telecommunications systems, planning for an ambitious launch in late 2016.

The UMSP aims to develop a platform of nano-satellites – small satellites barely larger than a Rubik’s cube and weighing as much as a litre of water that have the ability to be deployed in large groups forming large mesh networks.

Despite traditional satellites being around the size and weight of a large truck, the UMSP believes there will be some novel advantages to using clusters of these smaller satellites – much akin to the benefits we’ve found in the powerful computers now behind our smart phones and even watches rather than computers the size of entire rooms in decades past.

Coincidentally, 50 years ago, a group of University of Melbourne engineering students similarly began construction of the first earth satellite built in Australia.

Construction of the satellite (Australis Oscar 5 – AO5) was completed in 1967 and launched into orbit by a US Air Force rocket in 1970.

AO5 carried out a number of measurements in space, and successfully responded to commands from earth. The satellite was tracked by a group of amateur radio operators around the world. In the 45 years since then, no Australian university has repeated this.

To mark this occasion and this link to the past, a symposium will be held to look at how space based technology has developed over the past 50 years.

Five members of the original student team that built AO5, including Rod Tucker, a Laureate Emeritus Professor at the University of Melbourne will give an overview of the design and construction of the AO5 satellite and describe their motivations and the challenges faced back in 1966.

Since then, he has witnessed enormous advances in space and communications technology.

“Looking back, it was an ambitious project, and we worked under challenging circumstances. But we had confidence in our abilities and a will to succeed. We made a significant contribution to our understanding of Space,” he said.

“It is great to see another generation of committed Space enthusiasts embarking upon such an ambitious project,” Professor Tucker said.

Troy McCann, Managing Director of the UMSP, will discuss the challenges both teams have faced and present an overview of the developments of space technology and access to space in the past half-century.

Troy and other members of the UMSP will give presentations on the design and construction of their satellite and will outline their plans for completing construction, testing and deployment of the satellite into low earth orbit.

“Unknown to much of the public, Australia has traditionally played a key role in the development of innovative space based technology. We have a unique opportunity to work with some brilliant minds here at the University of Melbourne, and we hope to take advantage of the latest advances in technology in recent years to develop technologies that were not possible until now,” he said.

“We are on the verge of a new wave of space technology development.”

The current University of Melbourne Space Program housed in the University’s Centre for Neural Engineering and sponsored by academic co-ordinator Professor Stan Skafidas, aims to continue making space history in Australia, just as the alumni group did decades ago.

When: Monday 5 October, 5:30-7pm
Where: Elisabeth Murdoch Theatre, Building 134, University of Melbourne
Register here
Contact: Nicola Ojerholm

Main image: Jon Connell – Night Sky in Australia, via Flickr, Creative Commons.