Space Technology Development

One does not go into space for the sake of it. The ability to measure things, analyse the Earth or conduct operations from space can provide unique possibilities not available to terrestrial-bound systems. In order to enable the use of such opportunities and to increase our ability to exploit them, suitable technologies must be developed. In this area of Space Technology Development, a multi-pronged approach is being followed.
Space Technology Development
Image Credit: NASA

The current focus areas include the development of novel and innovative in-orbit thermal control techniques (materials, methods and devices), primarily aimed at spacecraft applications. Another focusses on improving the understanding of thermal interactions in exploration vehicles within extra-terrestrial planetary environments – in the current case, Mars - by simulation and test, while a further area of interest is in-orbit propulsion. This research is investigating novel fluidic thrust vectoring approaches to improve the efficiency of spacecraft manoeuvring and combines numerical simulation with validation experiments in ground-based rigs. Once developed and optimised, these thruster designs can potentially be tested on future cubesat flights.

This leads on to the ultimate goal of such technology developments, which is in-situ (in this case, in space) demonstration. Space-based experimental platforms such as microsats and cubesats offer an affordable opportunity to test ideas such as the propulsion and thermo-structural technologies mentioned above. The potential application of these technologies is not limited to small spacecraft.

This Spacecraft Technology Development programme will run in parallel with the other UNSW space activities. It has the 5 year-objectives of (1) aiding the growth of an in-house capability in support of UNSW science missions and (2) extending the utility of small cubesats to missions beyond LEO (eg low cost lunar or interplanetary missions). For such missions to be feasible, research and development of the missing technologies is required and will form part of the overall suite of UNSW space-related activities.

While the use of COTS components is sensible and desirable where appropriate, such as in the early stages of the programme, having the in-house ability to design and manufacture some spacecraft systems enables optimal solutions when incorporating UNSW-developed instruments, propulsion systems and thermal management strategies. It increases our flexibility and reduces our dependence on an external state-of-the-art. Development of this ability will be supported by research into structural optimization and manufacturing techniques, including 3-D printing and composites.

Further activities include the development of Active Debris Removal techniques (eg for the harpoon capture of space debris). This complements the ground-based and simulation activities, since SSA makes no sense if one is unable to do anything about the junk.

The attitude of both active and no-longer active satellites can be influenced by thermal distortion of the spacecraft structure due to fluctuating solar flux and radiative loss. High-fidelity predictions of spacecraft orbital trajectories require accurate models of all factors influencing attitude including the static and dynamic effects of structural distortion. This is particularly important for large, light-weight deployable structures. Research will leverage ongoing research at UNSW Canberra into modelling fluid-thermal-structural interactions in non-rigid structures. Modelling will be largely numerical but experimental approaches will need to be established for simple validation experiments in ground test facilities. This work can also be extended to establish control strategies to compensate for these non-linear effects.

A final area of work comprises research into entry systems. This is of relevance to innovative small platform planetary exploration, but also has the potential to complement the modelling and control of debris re-entry.