6 mins read 06 Jul 2021

Testing Time for Australian Space Hardware Manufacturers

Australia’s ability to rigorously test materials and technology designed to travel in space is about to get a boost, thanks to new funding provided to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. 

The high energy heavy ion microprobe at ANSTO. Coupled with an accelerator system, this unique scientific instrument is capable of producing a highly focused beam of accelerated ions with a spot size down to sub-micrometre dimensions. Credit: ANSTO

Despite the recent regularity of rockets launching more and more hardware into orbit, spaceflight remains a very tricky business. Satellites and other spacecraft need to be able to withstand the extremes of space where they are exposed to conditions quite unlike anything on Earth. 

To help test the capabilities of Australian developed materials and technologies to survive the harsh environment of space, a new grant of $665,000 has been announced for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). This will give local manufacturers access to onshore facilities that are currently available only in Europe and the US.

The grant is part of $2.5-million in federal funding for the recently formed National Space Qualification Network (NSQN), a partnership between industry and academia to provide certification for satellites and other space-bound technologies. As one of the partners, ANSTO will be looking to transform Australia into a world-leading space centre with facilities to test payload, components, and hardware prior to their deployment into space.

ANSTO’s Head of Research Infrastructure Dr Miles Apperley said that the NSQN partnership would be able to tap into our homegrown talent.

“It’s incredibly exciting to see this collaboration in our space industry and this partnership will put Australia firmly on the global stage,” Dr Apperley said.

“It will bring together all the experience and knowledge from each organisation to offer a well-oiled mechanism for space companies to conduct product testing on Australian shores. The space industry has created a rapidly growing need for innovation in Australia. It has the potential to create new jobs and businesses for the next generation and I can’t wait to see how the industry continues to grow over the coming years.”

ANSTO already possesses ion beam, x-ray, and gamma-ray irradiation capabilities that will allow them to test materials used in space components, but further upgrades and enhancements to the facilities are expected to maximise the efficiency of prepping electronics for the extreme environment of space.

This is great news for our fledgling space industry, but if you don’t know why x-rays and gamma rays create such a big challenge to spaceflight, read on as we delve into the physics.

Space Radiation

Space radiation poses a problem to spaceflight. Radiation from the Sun and galactic sources can affect the operation of computers and electronics, and can degrade surfaces over time. Credit: L. Han/IAEA

Most people understand how big a threat space junk has become to our continued presence in space, particularly low Earth orbit. If you’ve seen the movie Gravity, then you know the devastating effect of cascading collisional impacts in space. Frighteningly, this is becoming an increasingly likely scenario. 

But aside from the threat of high-speed collisions, the serenity of space is also broken by an assortment of invisible hazards coming from afar.

Galactic cosmic radiation comes from outside our Solar System, and the Sun also emits clouds of subatomic particles in sporadic surges. Solar particle events and coronal mass ejections can send a billion tonnes of matter streaming out into space at millions of kilometres per hour.

The Carrington Event in 1859 was one of the biggest solar storms ever recorded. It was triggered when a few billion tonnes of super-hot gas was ejected from the Sun directly towards the Earth.

Travelling at speeds of more than 2,300-km per second, it struck Earth’s magnetic field producing fantastic auroras that could be seen from latitudes close to the equator. Electrical currents induced in the ground destroyed telegraph stations, disrupting communications and electrocuting operators.

A similar event today would destroy about 10% of the satellites orbiting the Earth, affecting our ability to use GPS, causing breakdowns in electrical grids, destroying computers and electronic equipment on Earth, and exposing astronauts to a lifetime’s worth of radiation in just a few hours.

Such destruction is a result of huge numbers of charged subatomic particles and high energy photons that are capable of penetrating into Earth’s atmosphere or through the skin of spacecraft. When the particles or radiation encounter computers embedded into spacecraft systems, they can scramble the data, flipping zeros to ones and vice versa and making them unusable.

And then there are effects that worsen over time. Charged particles that collect on the surface of a spacecraft can build up a charge that damages electronics, sensors and solar panels. The same is true even of less energetic solar ultraviolet and x-ray radiation.

The problems caused by radiation are not limited to spacecraft in the vicinity of Earth, either. Jupiter, for example, has radiation belts that are 10,000 times stronger than the Van Allen Belts that surround Earth. And although solar radiation is harsher closer to the Sun, galactic cosmic rays can be encountered anywhere.

So, spacecraft need to be built to be radiation hardened from their very foundations by using materials that are less susceptible to particle strikes or charging. Sensitive electronics are protected by layered aluminium or titanium. And redundancy is often built-in so that a single failure will not disable an entire satellite component.

But testing is critical. And ANSTO will be able to provide that capability.

Testing for Spaceflight

A full range of space product testing will be available in Australia, unlocking better market access for Australian manufacturers. Credit: NASA

Dr Ceri Brenner is ANSTO’s recently appointed Leader of the Centre for Accelerator Science. Dr Brenner said the new funding would enable ANSTO to apply its considerable knowledge to the area of space testing and qualification of electronic devices. 

“Nearly all products that go into space, like rocket ships and satellites, are operated by technology,” said Dr Brenner.

“If the technology malfunctions, that product is in real trouble. For all the obvious safety and financial reasons, manufacturers want to be certain that when they launch a product into space, it can withstand the harsh climate it’s entering.”

“And that is where ANSTO and its partners can step in with our testing capabilities. We can help provide that certainty with our instruments and techniques. Rigorous testing sees the product exposed to radiation, vibrations, extreme temperatures and vacuums, to ensure it is space-ready.”

It was only a few months ago that ANSTO commissioned a new beamline to support space research relating to the impact of galactic cosmic radiation on astronauts and, you guessed it, space electronics radiation testing and hardening.

Which is to say, they have the expertise, they have the equipment, and they have the knowledge for this much-needed program to be a success. Our young Australian space industry is counting on it.