Lift off! Space projects soar with new funding

22 July 2021
Researchers awarded funding for collaborative aerospace projects
The three separate grants have been jointly awarded to Faculty of Engineering researchers and partner organisations to develop and manufacture aerospace infrastructure.

Researchers in the University of Sydney’s School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering, the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, and the Australian Centre for Microscopy & Microanalysis have received over $800k for three collaborative space projects, under the federal government’s Modern Manufacturing Initiative and the Moon to Mars Demonstrator Feasibility Grants scheme.

The three separate grants have been jointly awarded to the researchers and partner organisations to develop and manufacture a low-cost, durable, liquid-fuelled rocket with high performance; to enhance robots’ navigation in space; and to allow the development of robotic sensors. 

Federal Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Christian Porter said Australia has unique opportunities when it comes to space manufacturing. 

“These grants will help bolster Australia’s reputation in the growing global civil space industry and build on the important work being led by our Australian Space Agency,” Minister Porter said.

Australian Space Agency director Enrico Palermo said the Moon to Mars Demonstrator Feasibility Grant recipients highlighted the breadth, depth and excellence of skills in the Australian civil space sector. 

“The projects funded are leading examples of Australia’s capabilities in developing space technologies, which will only continue to grow and expand into the future,” Mr Palermo said.

Commercial launch market propels high performance rocket build 

Professor Simon Ringer will work with metal parts manufacturer SPEE3D as the team set about revolutionising the space industry with a low-cost solution to mass produce metal 3D printed rocket engines in Australia. 

Professor Ringer is the Director of Core Research Facilities. Credit: University of Sydney

Professor Ringer said: ”Big congratulations to SPEE3D – we are all excited at the prospect of working together on this project. Of all the many challenges that present in the design and manufacture of spacecraft, undoubtedly, the most challenging system is the rocket engine. The sustained high temperatures, complex stress states and highly corrosive environments create extreme materials engineering challenges.”

SPEE3D Chief Technology Officer Steven Camilleri said: “SPEE3D has developed a new way to manufacture rocket engines quickly with our advanced manufacturing process. The MMI grant will allow us to work with the University of Sydney to design, qualify and manufacture test flight ready engines for the emerging industrial space market”.

DINGO gives space-faring robots freedom to roam

An Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) team led by Professor Salah Sukkarieh will advance the intelligence of future moon and Mars resource mapping and soil sampling robots, giving robots the ability to adapt their paths and positions in real-time. 

As part of the DINGO (Drilling, Inference, and Navigation for Geological Operations) project, the researchers will design and test AI machine learning algorithms and sampling tools to demonstrate adaptive and energy efficient navigation. With this technology, a robot will be able to build intelligence over its path and adapt its plan in real-time. 

These capabilities will initially be demonstrated on existing robots, such as the agricultural roaming Swagbot, with the ultimate aim of deploying algorithms and sampling systems on future lunar missions. They could potentially support the NASA Moon to Mars Program, via the Australian Space Agency. 

“DINGO will advance autonomous rover operations, allowing space robots to cleverly navigate terrains on the moon and Mars,” said DINGO Program Manager Khalid Rafique. 

“We can’t simply deploy an Earth-based robotic systems on the moon. Our technology will teach robots to navigate complex atmospheric and terrestrial conditions,” he said.

Professor Sukarrieh said autonomous robots and terrestrial exploration are gaining momentum. He said, “This is an exciting area of research which is set to redefine our understanding of autonomous rover operations on the moon and Mars.”

Robotic sensors to aid NASA operations 

School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic space expert, Dr Xiaofeng Wu, will work with Australian AI and robotics company Abyss Solutions on a space-borne robotic inspection and intervention project. The project will deliver next-generation technology for the? future NASA mission to the moon and beyond. 

Dr Xiaofeng Wu. Credit: University of Sydney

The grant is part of a $150 million program announced in 2020 to help local small-to-medium enterprises join the United States government’s Moon to Mars space exploration program.

The University of Sydney team will work with project lead Abyss to develop a robotic sensor and intervention manipulator to undertake asset inspection and repairs during space-borne operations such as satellites. 

Dr Wu said the project is a prime example of industrial and research collaboration: “The rapid expansion of Australia’s space sector is being driven by the intersection of research and industry. Highly technical, value-add projects such as this will allow Australia to prove its worth as a valuable contributor to the global space effort.

“We’re thrilled to play a part in NASA’s grand ambition to establish a sustainable presence on the moon to prepare for missions to Mars,” he said.

Head of Research and Development at Abyss Solutions, Dr Lashika Medagoda, said: “The project aims to apply Abyss’ market-leading expertise in robotic inspection to the challenges of space and partnering with the University of Sydney provides an opportunity to develop high-value technology and services to the space industry.”

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