Tools of ancient hunters find their place in outer space

Space might be the final frontier, but, like all frontiers it’s strewn with junk. Luckily, Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Auckland Space Institute has a plan.

Professor Guglielmo Aglietti at the University of Auckland's Mission Control Centre.
Professor Guglielmo Aglietti has a working Mission Control Centre operating at the University.
The University of Auckland has a top ten ranking globally in the Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings for 2021. The rankings assess how universities are working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
The University of Auckland has a top ten ranking globally in the Times Higher Education University Impact Rankings for 2021. The rankings assess how universities are working towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Three giant monitors line the front of the Mission Operations Control Centre operated by the Auckland Space Institute at the University of Auckland. The monitor on the far left shows Earth as seen from space. The familiar blue-green globe floats in velvet darkness. Look closer and there’s a fuzzy doughnut surrounding the planet. The haze is the cloud of space junk that humanity has left circling the planet.

It’s been happening ever since humans ventured beyond the planet. A satellite is launched, provides years of useful data and then goes dead. A rocket does its job and then sits in orbit, a dead hulk as big as a bus. Paint chips and the flecks assume their own trajectories. Bits disconnect. Sometimes a nation keen to show technological dominance will test fire missiles to destroy satellites. The debris cloud grows.

Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, director of the Auckland Space Institute, once worked at the European Space Agency. He says, “Every now and then there’s an alert and the International Space Station has to be moved out of the path of a piece of debris.”

The Mission Operations Centre monitor shows a data visualization of the Space Object Catalogue. There are an estimated 21,409 pieces of debris in earth orbit that are bigger than 10cm. Collectively, that adds up to about 9000 tonnes of space junk. Current technology can detect and track debris from the 10cm2 range. As for pieces smaller, they undoubtedly number in the millions. A paint chip might seem innocuous, but with orbital speeds of more than 7km/sec, four times the speed of a bullet on earth, space junk packs a giant punch. At that velocity a loose screw can do serious damage.

When Aglietti was the director of the Surrey Space Centre in the United Kingdom, his team put their engineering brains together to work on an answer. The result was the RemoveDebris space mission. Aglietti and his team then led the consortium that built a ‘platform’ delivered to the International Space Station on a SpaceX Dragon cargo run in 2018. Astronauts unpacked the platform and launched it using the robotic arm in Japan’s experimental module on the station. A CubeSat (a 10 by 10 by 20 cm³ mini satellite) was launched as the first target.

The platform located it, calculated distance and direction and fired a net that successfully snared the CubeSat. For the next experiment a second CubeSat was released to be observed by a lidar (laster rangefinder) camera able to estimate the target distance. Next, the platform fired a harpoon to the target. Once the debris is captured, the platform deploys a dragsail that lowers its orbit to immolate in the atmosphere. Job done.

A net and a spear are technology a gladiator in ancient Rome would recognise. Exactly, says Aglietti. The aim was to create a low-cost, no fuss technique. Space is an expensive frontier and tractor beams only exist on Star Trek. Aglietti says: “The idea was let's try to do this in a cheap way, because there’s a higher probability that countries can squeeze it into their budgets. If it involves huge cost they will never do it and all say, ‘let’s wait’.”

Aglietti has since presented his work to the United Nations and other national space organisations. All are agreed that it’s an easy and cheap answer, but as yet, no national space programme has put their hand up, as other techniques are also being investigated.

Dragon re-supply launch delivers RemoveDebris trial device to International Space Station

The international agreement is that a country or business putting an object into earth orbit needs to ensure that it tidies up its mess within 25 years. But as Aglietti notes, there are no space litter police to enforce the rules, nor is there any international initiative to sort the existing space junk problem.

“It only gets worse. Debris collide with each other and create more debris.” It matters because the space debris is concentrated at optimum orbit distances. Aglietti is more than happy to work with anyone who wants to sort the problem. “It’s a shame really. Humanity tends to do this. Even at the most remote spots, the top of Everest, or the bottom of the sea, it’s hard to escape our junk.”

Aglietti is a key figure in Aotearoa New Zealand’s fledgling space sector. He’s an enthusiast who has led space missions and wants New Zealand to be a pivotal member of the select club of nations in space.

Aglietti was a child of the space age, his wonder years shaped by the Apollo missions to the moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey. He became an aerospace engineer, working as an academic and in the space industry. His resume includes key roles in the European Space Agency, and in academia working with the key players in the UK space sector.

As a boy he figured that by the time he grew up, we would have colonies on the Moon and be travelling to Mars. The early technological breakthroughs in space were fueled by the Cold War ambitions of superpowers. As the Cold War thawed, the deep pockets of those nations, were deployed elsewhere.
 

Multibillionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson are driving a private enterprise approach to space research and exploration.

Today space is in the headlines again. Multibillionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson are driving a private enterprise approach to space research and exploration, an approach followed by New Zealand’s own Rocket Lab, founded by Peter Beck, an adjunct professor in aerospace engineering at the University of Auckland.

As well as space tourism for those with the means to pay for it, and ambitions for a manned mission to Mars, the workhorse of space, the satellite, has changed. Last century, satellites were bigger than cars and required serious rocket power to launch. The last decade has seen the rise of micro or nano-satellites, like the CubeSat format, which has brought down the cost of payloads.

The thinking is that these mini satellites can be launched in sufficient numbers to form constellations, a bracelet around the globe, linked to share data and reach almost instantaneously.
The advent of private space entrepreneurs means national ambitions for a space industry are no longer the preserve of superpowers.

Aglietti is happy to list a number of advantages New Zealand already has. The first is location. Satellites and spacecraft orbit. Keeping track and controlling them requires having a network of ground stations girding the world. “We can see satellites when nobody else can. That’s important, especially as we want to accurately monitor space traffic.”.”

A layperson tends to imagine orbits as running like Swiss watch movements. Not so, says Aglietti, there are “orbital perturbations”. A satellite is expensive kit. If you have one, you want to know where it is continuously. A New Zealand space industry would be able to keep an eye on these multimillion-dollar investments when northern hemisphere colleagues get their shuteye.

The ‘tyranny of distance’ that has so often hampered New Zealand’s economic ambitions becomes a unique advantage when it comes to space. New Zealand skies are by many degrees clearer of air traffic than the United States or Europe. A launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, means sending the equivalent of a harnessed exploding bomb through civilian air routes. A mishap means that same exploding bomb risks coming down over densely populated coastal metropolises.

Clear skies needed for the space economy

In New Zealand our beloved emptiness and clear horizons offer open airspace and vast swathes of empty ocean, reducing risk and compliance costs. Launching from New Zealand is also cheaper to access certain useful orbits than in other parts of the world.

Geography is worth nothing without infrastructure, expertise and attitude. Which is where Aglietti comes in. His background is with space organisations based in countries with considerable space heritage, dating back to humanity’s first ventures off planet. The shorthand description of New Zealand’s space sector ambitions is New Space. (see sidebar)

He says, “In Europe and the United States there is such a long tradition in space that there is a very established procedure. That heritage has produced great space missions, but also means the environment is not terribly dynamic.” At his previous role as director of the Surrey Space Centre, at Surrey University, the researchers worked on a broad range of space technology but lacked a partnership with a rocket launcher.

Testing environments can replicate a great deal on earth but ultimately space technology can only be proven in space. “As engineers we wanted to be able to quickly launch innovations so they could be demonstrated in orbit,” he says.

Aglietti says New Zealand offers something unique. Here one can answer the challenge: If you were going to create a space sector today, rather than in the midst of the Cold War, how would you do it? “Here, it’s almost like a blank sheet of paper. We can create something new here.”

The Space Institute will teach future aerospace engineers, but the thrust is for hands on experience in real space operations. From 2023, the Mission Operations Centre will be in charge of an actual satellite, MethaneSAT, funded by the Government and the US-based Environmental Defense Fund. The 350kg satellite bristles with sophisticated sensors that will enable it to locate and measure the greenhouse gas methane from human sources around the globe.

Work will begin soon on a dedicated ‘clean room’, a near dustproof manufacturing space where staff and students can construct satellites and other space hardware. In transit via sea is what is colloquially called a hydraulic ‘shaker’, a 10-tonne device, able to produce vibrations in three dimensions exerting enough g-force to replicate the conditions of a rocket launch to test the robustness of scientific payloads.

The Space Institute will house some of the infrastructure, the faculty is offering Aotearoa’s first dedicated master’s in aerospace engineering and Aglietti says those he talks and works with in the fledgling space industry have the ambition and attitude to make it work.

For the Space Institute, he has already mentally filled in the blank slate. “In five years, I would like to see our capability to deliver space missions end to end established, from initial concept design to hardware development and testing, to in-orbit operation.”

He sees close partnership with companies working to turn research insight into real world products and sees New Zealand becoming a leading partner in significant international projects.

In a decade Aglietti predicts Aotearoa will be known for attributes other than milk, meat and scenery. By 2030 he sees Aotearoa as home to a mature and thriving space sector fueled by research and commercialization of space technology via private/public partnerships.

A country at the end of the world will have transformed the advantages of its geography with vibrant research and entrepreneurship into a respected member of the international space community. That’s the goal.
 

Aotearoa space sector ready for lift-off

The New Zealand space industry lacks profile, but with a total revenue of $1.75bn, is running close to the $1.86bn return from the long-established wine industry. A report from the Deloitte consultancy New Zealand Space Economy: Its value, scope and structure describes New Zealand’s space economy as New Space, in that it is driven almost entirely by commercial activity rather than major long-term Government investment.

The report showed that the space sector included 14 companies with revenue of more than $10m a year and 16 companies with more than 200 employees. The total number of jobs in the sector is 5,000 directly related jobs and a further 7, 000 indirectly related jobs, the majority of these highly paid knowledge workers.

Story by Gilbert Wong
Main researcher portrait by Billy Wong

The Challenge is a continuing series from the University of Auckland about how researchers are helping to tackle some of the world's biggest challenges. To republish this article please contact: gilbert.wong@auckland.ac.nz