When the Australian Space Agency opened a little over 12 months ago, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was too little, too late for Australia’s space efforts.

With an initial budget allocation of $26 million over four years, it was hard to see how our home-grown agency could possibly compare to the tens of billions of dollars spent overseas.

But after hearing from Dr Christyl Johnson, Deputy Director for Technology at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, the importance of our role in humanity’s journey to the stars is much clearer.

“Now that we know Australia is wanting to be an active participant in that we can look at future partnerships,” Dr Johnson told Information Age.

“I’ve already been having conversations with [Head of the Australian Space Agency, Dr Megan Clark] about areas we want to partner in with joint development activities.”

Even though the Australian Space Agency is young, Dr Johnson said there are plenty of ways for it and relevant industries to contribute to space missions.

“Australia has got so many assets that it can bring to the table,” she said.

“Your expertise in mining in extreme conditions is going to be absolutely critical for us when we start looking at how to have a sustained presence on the surface of the Moon then onto Mars.

“You’ve also been doing work with laser communications that, combined with your work on data analytics, machine learning and AI will be crucial for analysing the large amounts of data being transferred to and from deep space.”

Laser communications are a much-needed upgrade on current radio frequency (RF) transmissions, but the technology is still in its infancy.

In the coming years, NASA will demonstrate a laser communications relay that will be used to send and receive data much faster than the current technology allows.

NASA’s Moon to Mars mission aims to establish a permanent presence on our nearest celestial neighbor while preparing to make a giant leap to land humans on the red planet.

Sending live video to and from feed from the Martian surface, for example, will greatly aid the living conditions for early colonists – but low frequency radio waves are old-hat and unsuitable for the speed and density of data we transmit today.

“We have been working hard in trying to get it developed and we have a demonstration mission to show our capabilities in the next couple of years,” Dr Johnson told Information Age.

“We’ll be demonstrating 1.2GB/s with laser communications in that mission. That’s already a large amount of data going very fast, but private industry companies are looking at going beyond 1.2GB/s.

“Those speeds will mean we can do things like show classrooms full of children live tours from where people are living under the surface of Mars.”

Australian tech on the cutting edge

Anthony Murfett, Deputy Head of the Australian Space Agency, said there are already ways our scientists and engineers are contributing to the development of laser communications technology.

“NASA, through the Goddard Space Flight Centre has expressed interest in Australia’s laser communication capabilities, as have other areas of NASA,” Murfett said.

“Some of our activities underway in the Australian space sector that could be of interest include the development of an optical ground station network in Australia, quantum secured optical communications, quantum sensing, as well as adaptive optics.

“CSIRO is also looking at an aperture enhancement project as part of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex.”

Dr Ed Kruzins is the Director of NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex in Canberra.

He told Information Age there remained a lot of technical challenges to overcome while preparing for the next stage of deep space communications.

“Optical communications can encode nearly 10,000 times more information than RF,” said Dr Kruzins.

“But one of the trade-offs is that lasers can be much more effected by the atmosphere than RF.”

Because atmospheric conditions affect lasers more than RF, the location of terrestrial receivers is vital.

This is a particular area of interest for Dr Kruzins and could help Australia become a major player in a large network of optical ground stations transmitting and receiving high speed data from deep space.

“CSIRO research is measuring the effects that atmosphere has on laser space communications,” he said.

“We’re testing for things like turbulence and the way clouds interfere with quality of service. By understanding the weather, we can measure certain sites for their potential capability.”

Dr Kruzins is optimistic that Australian scientists and engineers can play a significant role in the further development of optical communications technology.

“Here in Australia we are already very good at RF communications and forms of astronomy, so finding a technical niche for ourselves in the form of optical space communications seems natural,” he said.

“I think of it as a natural extension of RF, not a replacement. More a significant augmentation to deep space communications.”

Dr Kruzins said the technology is in a transitional phase somewhere between research and development and implementation.

As a result, there is still a lot more testing and research to be done.

“We’re still looking at things like laser transmission safety so as not to affect aircraft and people near the sites,” he said.

“How you manipulate the waveform to code information is also extremely important because the way you code has impact on the information the wave can deliver.

“Coding methodologies sympathetic to error correction are also important to ensure information is reliably received.”