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‘Space warriors’: Sydney firm helps US prepare for orbital battle

Thanks to the commercial space boom and more than half a century of launches, low-Earth orbit (2000 kilometres altitude and lower) has become cluttered with satellites and junk – objects that need to be avoided for space operations to proceed.

In the event of a space conflict, he said, governments want to “be space warriors, not space traffic cops”.

The world saw a near miss in low earth orbit this week. Saber Astronautics' visualisation of low earth orbit.

The world saw a near miss in low earth orbit this week. Saber Astronautics’ visualisation of low earth orbit. Credit:Saber Astronautics

“We understand what can happen to a satellite, why it can happen and how it can happen for thousands of spacecraft at the same time,” he said.

The Space Situational Awareness exercise tested the ability for the US to knit together “real-world, commercial, and defence assets” to detect “space threats and to conduct orbital manoeuvres” that could potentially counter a rival, Saber Astronautics said.

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Another drill is planned in December.

Space agencies and companies are anxious to avoid satellite collisions which can create debris fields that imperil all orbiting craft.

This week the European Space Agency had to rapidly manoeuvre a satellite to avoid collusion with a small device launched by SpaceX.

Anthony Murfett, deputy head of the Australian Space Agency said the growth in the use of space, particularly in low-Earth orbit, increased the need for tracking the objects, something known as space situational awareness.

“Australia’s southern hemisphere location, the expanse of Australian land and low light contamination make this an ideal location for space situational awareness” which is “an area of strength for Australia,” Murfett said.

Australia has a national strategy to triple the size of the space sector from $3.9 billion to $12 billion by 2030.

Exercises at Saber Astronautics' Colorado control station.

Exercises at Saber Astronautics’ Colorado control station.Credit:Saber Astronautics

“The participation of Australian companies like Saber Astronautics highlights how Australia can support and participate in the growing space economy around the world,” Murfett said.

Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the UNSW said the sophisticated space work done in Australia reflects the rapid evolution of the local industry.

In addition to ground control companies such as Sabre, he said, Australia now has space port companies, launch companies, satellite builders, as well as companies that produce specialised satellite gear.

“Five years ago when I was predicting an Australian space industry ecosystem would emerge, I didn’t really predict it would emerge so quickly”, Dempster said. “Now companies exist in all the areas we need.”

A space object on a screen at Saber Astronautics Colorado control station.

A space object on a screen at Saber Astronautics Colorado control station.Credit:Saber Astronautics

Privately-owned Saber Astronautics has about 20 employees in Australia and the US, and ground control stations in Sydney and the Colorado.

The demand for more partnerships between the US government and private companies has existed for some time, Held of Saber Astronautics said, but US President Donald Trump’s focus on the area has cut through some of the political inertia.

Trump last week relaunched the US Space Command  and is pushing for the creation of an independent branch of the military, the US Space Force.

The Space Command, Trump said, would help “defend America’s vital interests in space, the next warfighting domain, and I think that’s pretty obvious to everybody.”

“It’s all about space.”

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