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Curtin University forms partnership to develop world-class space tracking system

An announcement made by Curtin University highlighted the FireOpal project, a research and development partnership it has with Lockheed Martin Space that uses sensors to track satellites and space debris. They will be harnessing the Desert Fireball Network technology that Curtin University built.

Curtin University, in a research and development partnership with Lockheed Martin Space, has innovatively harnessed technology previously used to observe meteorite fireballs, and has applied it to track satellites.

The system has the capacity to change the way how space objects in orbit are being tracked. Even better is how it can be done at a fraction of the cost of current technologies in place.

A range of sensors is being used by the FireOPAL project to track satellites and space debris. This will ultimately provide a persistent view of objects in orbit around the Earth. It can also act as an early warning system of potential problems affecting satellites and their interaction with the thousands of pieces of space debris.

This system is an adaptation of Curtin University’s Desert Fireball Network meteorite tracking capability. 

Dr Phil Bland led a team of students to build the digital, autonomous network called the Desert Fireball Network (DFN). It is a distributed network of automated observatories for tracking meteorite fireballs, re-entering space debris, satellites and rocket launches.

It images meteors as they fall, accurately measures their speed and direction, and uses this data to precisely calculate their landing zones. DFN researchers then go out and recover the meteorites. By making networked observations of the fireball scientists can triangulate its trajectory, track the rock forward to where it lands, and back, to where it came from in the solar system.

Lockheed Martin Space Managing Director for Australia and New Zealand Mr Rod Drury said FireOPAL is an entirely Australian innovation developed by Lockheed Martin and Curtin University that is set to be expanded around the world.

He said, “This technology enables us to track objects in space in a way that hasn’t been done before.”

He added, “We are trialling more space situational awareness sensors and new capabilities to assess what is possible and explore the advantages and challenges of combining data from different sensors.

Mr Drury explained, “This partnership with Curtin University further demonstrates Lockheed Martin’s ongoing commitment to collaborating with Australian researchers and industry to identify and develop advanced technologies for the space domain.”

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Dr Phil Bland, leader of the Desert Fireball Network at Curtin University, reinforced the importance of partnerships with companies like Lockheed Martin for continuing to support, improve and potentially further develop Australia’s niche space capabilities.

Professor Bland said, “FireOPAL is a great example of how blue-sky space science projects can rapidly translate into real benefits for Australian space industries and defence.”

He added, “FireOPAL has the potential to be a disruptive technology in space situational awareness. We’re looking forward to exploring that potential with Lockheed Martin.”

The joint research and development partnership between Curtin University and Lockheed Martin Space was formally announced at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in September 2017.

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