Waste in space

Wednesday, 01 June 2022


    In a cosmos filled with dark matter, leading-edge tech, investment opportunity — and far too much satellite and rocket debris — astronomer Alan Duffy GAICD has accepted the challenge of developing a viable Australian space industry.

    It’s been a busy 12 months in space for the super rich. In July last year, Richard Branson took his first sub-orbital flight aboard his Virgin Galactic VSS Unity rocket ship. Nine days later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos blasted to the edge of space in New Shepard, the launch vehicle developed by his aerospace company Blue Horizon. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully completed 31 rocket launches in 2021, including a high-altitude flight test of its Starship SN15 prototype, the mega spacecraft that will transport NASA astronauts to the moon in 2025 — and the potential vehicle for Musk’s dream of colonising Mars.

    For astronomer Professor Alan Duffy GAICD, the billionaires’ endeavours are casting welcome attention on an industry estimated by Morgan Stanley to be worth US$1 trillion by 2040. But he’s also keen to bring lofty ambitions back down to Earth. Lead scientist of The Royal Institution of Australia and director of the Space Technology and Industry Institute at Swinburne University, Duffy says the space industry presents both exciting opportunities and significant governance challenges — from cyber risks in the satellite sector to responsible mining of the moon. And, as the space race becomes more competitive with the rise of commercial industry players, he’s exploring ways to avoid collisions in an increasingly congested solar system.

    “For the companies engaging in the space sector, the challenges are both of a technical and organisational nature,” says Duffy, who is also member of the advisory board for Questacon national science and technology centre and a leading science communicator.

    “It’s called rocket science for a reason,” he adds. “You have to understand the exacting standards of space.”

    One giant leap

    Duffy grew up with stars in his eyes. His earliest memories include car rides between the farming villages that surrounded his hometown of Ballyclare in Northern Ireland, where minimal light pollution helped the stars shine brighter in the night sky. With his face pressed against the car window, he’d marvel at the constellations and a lifelong passion was born. “I was just struck by the stars,” says Duffy. “I wanted to know what they were, but also why there were regions in the sky without stars. Was it because there were just no stars there, or was it because something was there, but the light was being blocked? Or, indeed, was it because something was there that was just fundamentally invisible? As it turns out, it’s a combination of all three.”

    Duffy has spent much of his professional life probing the nature of that “fundamentally invisible” component of the cosmos. Dark matter is thought to comprise almost 80 per cent of the universe. Its gravity may be responsible for holding galaxies together, but scientists are yet to detect it. It’s a bit like understanding the movement of air before the discovery of the atom in the early 1800s. Scientists knew that wind was creating motion of the trees, but they didn’t know what it was made of.

    “We can see the motion of the stars pulled by this invisible counterpart,” says Duffy. “We know where the dark matter is. We know how much there is. We just don’t know what it is.”

    Much of Duffy’s research involves creating universes on supercomputers to understand how galaxies form and grow within halos of dark matter. It was this galactic focus that brought him to Australia in 2009 to work on the development of the world’s largest telescope — Square Kilometre Array (SKA) — and he’s worked at the cutting edge of the space technology industry ever since.

    At the Space Technology and Industry Institute, for instance, he’s focused on meeting a key priority area set by the Australian Space Agency (ASA) to “leapfrog R&D”. The federal government has invested $700m in the civil space industry since ASA was established in 2018 as an independent central entity for aerospace. The investment is part of a broader plan to grow the Australian space sector to $12b and create another 20,000 jobs by 2030 — but Duffy notes that there’s some catching up to do.

    “We’re embracing the opportunity that our relatively late engagement in the space sector as a nation affords us,” he says. “We can start afresh — and we’re starting with the most advanced technology possible to ensure that this engagement in space is at the cutting edge.”

    Off-world economy

    Since its launch in January last year, the Space Technology and Industry Institute has been working to bridge the gap between space exploration and solving earthly enterprise problems via its expertise in aerospace engineering, artificial intelligence, astrophysics and materials science. For example, through its partnership with additive manufacturing company Titomic, and with the support of a $2.3m federal government Modern Manufacturing Initiative grant, it is seeking to create lighter, stronger and greener structures for space, including rocket nozzles and satellite components.

    The institute is also working with the CSIRO, members of China’s Shandong University, and space tech companies Space Industries and Lunar Resources to mine the moon for minerals and valuable metals, and to recover water and oxygen. Along with international researchers, Duffy and his Swinburne team are exploring technology to recycle some of the estimated 200,000kg of space junk — mostly rocket and satellite debris — scattered across the lunar surface.

    “We have a number of PhD research programs on not just accessing the resources of the Moon, but also ensuring what we select and manufacture is all designed sustainably,” says Duffy. “The lunar economy must be a circular economy. We must do better than we’ve done on Earth and ensure that recyclability is built in. If we wait until there is a pollution crisis, it will be too late. We’re seeing that in orbit already and trying to figure out ways to clean it up. We should already have been mindful of that, and the Moon is our opportunity to do better with this pristine environment.”

    Cleaning up the cosmos

    There are more than 100 million pieces of human-made debris orbiting the Earth that risk smashing into satellites and space stations at speeds of more than 25,000km/h. Over the past two decades, some low-Earth orbits may have accumulated enough debris to trigger Kessler Syndrome — a theory proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in the 1970s, in which the density of space junk grows to a point that collisions become unstoppable, creating more and more fragments and making space inaccessible. Escalating space junk presents a risk to the rapidly growing satellite sector and the technology we now rely on for everything from navigation to weather reports and monitoring natural disasters.

    The satellite data services market was valued at US$5.9b in 2021 and is projected to reach US$16.7b by 2026. At the end of 2021, there were an estimated 5000 active satellites in orbit. The Starlink satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX accounts for about 2000 of them. But while the satellite industry is threatened by space junk, it’s also part of the problem. Every satellite that enters space has the potential to become space junk and the cosmos is set to become more crowded, with Amazon planning to launch the first of its Project Kuiper broadband satellites this year and Boeing getting the green light to launch a broadband constellation that will place 147 satellites in orbit.

    Duffy is working on a project called “Responsible AI in Space”, which aims to harness AI to create a system of smarter satellites that can dodge debris. However, he maintains space tech organisations must be responsible for the mess they leave and the potential risks that they pose in orbit. “It is an enormous challenge, because it is a relatively unfamiliar one,” he says. “You have a duty of care to myriad stakeholders and, with the increasing numbers of satellites, never has there been more activity up there.”

    And the proliferation of space junk is making it ever harder. “We call it space 2.0, because it’s so radically altered,” says Duffy. “Whereas before it was a competition between superpowers, now it’s one between startups, and the greater threat is not so much a rocket failure, but perhaps the cyber risks when you have your facility in orbit. It’s an extremely dynamic environment — one in which boards need to be mindful to constantly update their knowledge in terms of both their opportunities and obligations. When a sector is going to be worth a trillion dollars, it needs a lot of attention.”

    Investing in the stars

    Duffy notes that the complexity of the cosmos also poses a challenge for investors. “Space presents high-risk, long-term payoff investments. We’re talking about initiatives that may take 10 years or more to develop and realise — and it could all fail on a single launch. This is a very challenging modelling scenario for investors.”

    Along with financial injections, Australia’s space sector also requires intellectual capital if it’s to thrive. Duffy says building a pipeline of game-changing astrophysicists in Australia involves producing job-ready graduates. “We can train them up on the technical, but industry knows what is current. Essentially, every research program [at the institute] is in partnership with industry.”

    Early engagement in science will also help build the talent pipeline. Institutions such as Questacon are supporting the cause. Each year, it welcomes more than 500,000 visitors to its two facilities in Canberra and its outreach programs visit 110, 000 in towns and communities across the country.

    Duffy joined the Questacon advisory board in 2019 and describes the centre as a national treasure. “It comes with unique opportunities and support, but also obligations,” he says. “It requires being mindful of the reputation and responsibilities that ministerial directives hold, cascading down through the department [Industry, Science, Energy and Resources]. “I don’t think I was aware of the import that such a structure has, but I was very fortunate to do the AICD Company Directors Course. I actually wish I’d done it in the months leading up to my appointment, but it’s never too late to better understand your role, obligations and opportunities.”

    With the Australian government aiming to triple the size of the space sector by the end of the decade, Duffy is predicting exciting developments ahead. “The funding allows companies to invest in new and game-changing technology to deliver for government as a customer, rather than government as a dispenser of grants,” he says. “That’s a sign we’re growing as an economy — and as a sector.”

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