The first Australian-built satellites to be launched in 15 years are set to take off this week from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Unlike the enormous satellites Australia uses for telecommunications, each of these new satellites (or cubesats) is the size of a loaf of bread. But although small, they may provide a key step in enabling Australia’s entry into the global satellite market.
Three types of cubesats are the Australian contribution to the international QB50 mission, in which 36 satellites from different institutions around the world will carry instruments provided by the Von Karman Institute (VKI) to examine the lower thermosphere. This is a very interesting part of the atmosphere for several reasons, such as the way it disturbs GPS measurements.
The cubesats will be first delivered to the International Space Station, and then released into their orbits.
The three teams that developed the Australian cubesats are: One from UNSW, one collaboration between the University of Sydney, the Australian National University and UNSW, and one collaboration between the universities of Adelaide and South Australia.
Once the VKI instrument and support systems (power, communications, and so on) are installed, there is still room for the teams to install payloads of their own.
Globally, the space industry had an estimated $335 billion (AU$440 billion) turnover in 2015. It’s expected to reach $1 trillion (AU$1.3 trillion) by 2030.
This is an innovation sector Australia cannot ignore, and small satellites — especially nano-satellites or cubesats — offer Australia a way in.
According to a report last month by Allied Market Research, the small satellite market is expected to be worth $7 billion (AU$9.2 billion) by 2020, with a compound annual growth rate of about 20 percent.
Analyst Spaceworks said in February that by 2023, the requirement for launches in the 1kg to 50kg class will be 320 to 460 satellites per year, more than 70 percent of them for commercial purposes.
Another analyst Euroconsult last year said there would be more than 3,500 small satellite launches in the next decade, worth $22 billion (AU$29 billion) with launch earnings of $5.3 billion (AU$7 billion). That’s a 76 percent increase over the previous decade.