Sunday, 9 May 2004

Ah, Spit

Maybe in another 30 years.

From the soon-to-be-extinct Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems :
The Cooperative Research System for Satellite Systems has been advised by the Department of Education, Science and Training that its preliminary business case for the Ninth Round of the CRC Program has not been successful.
"...we believe that the program of space research and development which we had developed with over twenty organisations over the past few months has immense potential for the Australian community. We proposed targeted research in the areas of satellite-based navigation, better communications, improved methods of predicting weather both on Earth and in space, and developing advanced space technologies for applications in Australia and around the world. After the stunning success of our first space project, the research satellite FedSat, we had hoped that our team of engineers and scientists would stay together and devote their talents to this new program. We will vigorously investigate other funding options, because we believe that a basic level of national capability in space technology is vital for Australia 's future. In a world in which the vantage point of space is crucial for social, environmental and economic health, a country which has no other option but to buy or source from off-shore all the space technology it needs will one day face a very unpleasant shock."
The team that built FedSat has already broken up - but it could have been re-formed.

In the meantime, FedSat:
Weathered the largest solar storm ever recorded
Demonstrated for the first time that automatic hardware "Self-Healing" from radiation damage was possible
Is the longest-lived Australian satellite ever
Was the first non-Japanese payload ever launched from a NASDA booster
Earned an Engineering Excellence award - though that and $2 will buy you a cup of tea (at a cheap teashop)

And as far as I know, is still the most complex and capable satellite of its size ever built, running half-a-dozen major complex experiments in one small 50kg box.

The CRCSS is the closest thing Australia has to a Space Agency. With its closure, ends yet another chapter in the sorry saga of Australian Space Program that almost was. Perhaps the Australian Space Network will take up the slack - but as the CRCSS was probably its backbone, that's unlikely. BLUESat is going well technically, but the funding still isn't there. JAESat is stalled due to lack of cash.

Few people know that Australia was only the third country in the world to design, build, and launch a satellite from its own spaceport (and the fifth to make a satellite of any kind) . This was the WRESAT in 1967. Build before WRESAT, but launched afterwards, was the world's first remotely-controlled amateur satellite, Australis (Oscar 5) in 1970.

There is an excellent history of this whole sad and sorry tale, how we as a nation started so well, then did nothing for 30 years.

From another history page, Australia in Space - A History
In 1 April 1947, the United Kingdom / Australian Joint Project came into existence and marks the commencement of Australian Space Program(s). In a memo to PM JB Chifley, 20 Sept 1946, it is stated that ".. this project ... without question put Australia in the very forefront of the most modern developments in ... Science." The project essentially came to an end with the launch of WRESAT in 1967. With the launching of WRESAT, Australia did indeed join the big league of nations launching satellites from their own territory, of which the US and the USSR were the only members at that date. But there was no ongoing Australian Space Program for over thirty years. The only exception to this statement was the launch in 1970 of the very modest Australian satellite, Australis, given a free launch by NASA, which called it Oscar-5. Australis was a simple beacon satellite, like Sputnik-1, with on-board receivers to control powering down (to conserve its alkaline batteries.)
But over thirty years, while communication satellites became commonplace, there were no further Australian developmental or scientific satellites. However, at the start of the next millenium, this dream of fifty years ago may yet come true. CRCSS Chair Tony Staley has prophesised that "the FedSat project would generate a new spirit of national confidence and encourage young Australians to set their sights on the stars."
He was right. But it seems they'd be better off looking towards Tennis Stars or Football Stars; that's where the money is.

I can't help thinking that we've missed out on a nice little money-earner though. With the FedSat bus, we've proved that we have the ability to integrate experimental payloads with a wildly diverse set of architectures. We were able to solve all the complex managerial problems of dealing with different academic groups and international space agencies. We were able to resolve all the problems inherent in integrating very different CPUs with different Floating-Point formats and Endianism, including Field Programmable Gate Arrays, and have it all talking to the ground via a standard European Space Agency communications protocol. We would be a very price-competitive, and an even more risk-competitive option, for any university wanting to orbit a low-power-consumption experiment of high complexity, reliably and cheaply. We have the infrastructure to do all the vibrational and structural analysis, we have military-grade software reliability.... or at least we had. Once upon a time.

Maybe in another 30 years.

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