Monash in space
Monash alumni are in the vanguard of the new era of space exploration and space technologies that are supporting a global industry now turning over more than US$450 billion a year.
When Adam and Michelle Gilmour embarked on banking and finance careers in the mid-1990s after studying – and meeting – at Monash University, the idea of running a start-up space rocket company was not even an idle fancy.
But the ingredients for a space-age career trajectory were there, if not immediately apparent.
“It was the Monash Bachelor of Business specialising in banking and finance that got us into a good bank, which in turn set us up with the entrepreneurial skills that allowed us to start thinking laterally,” Adam Gilmour says.
About 10 years ago, he became interested in the commercial possibilities of the emerging ‘new era’ of space exploration. Initially, it was the potential for suborbital tourism that caught his eye, but then the small satellite revolution started to happen. He quickly discerned a looming bottleneck – the launch industry – and that’s where he started to seriously investigate.
The upshot is that the Gilmours are today the principals behind Gilmour Space Technologies, based in Brisbane and Singapore, and specialising in the development of small, low-cost rockets purpose-built for today’s small satellites.
“The story of today’s space business is the generation of entrepreneurs who are disconnecting the industry from the big government agencies and developing and commercialising a whole range of new products and services,” Gilmour says.
“And the technology that has changed all this is miniaturisation; just think of your smartphone, for example. It has more computing power than existed in a space shuttle. It’s also packed with sensors, even a gyroscope, and these components are tiny – two millimetres or less in size. So put this level of miniaturisation in a satellite and you suddenly have a very powerful, capable satellite that is no longer the size of a car or bus, but the size of a small kitchen microwave.”
Gilmour says this makes a huge difference to the cost of putting satellite platforms into orbit because the launch price is still on a per-kilogram basis: “So if you can reduce a satellite from 400 kilograms to 30 or 40 kilograms you’re lowering the launch price by 90 per cent, or for the same cost you can launch multiple satellites.”
And hand-in-glove with miniaturisation is the ever-widening array of uses: “infrared sensors detecting pregnant cows in a herd from their higher body heat; commodity traders using daily photos of the rise and fall of fuel storage tank lids to gauge global oil reserves; to satellite systems driving precision agriculture and crop management”.
But despite all this activity, Gilmour says the launch industry hasn’t kept up. The rockets are still big and expensive, and that, he says, is the business opening he’s exploiting.
Not surprisingly, he’s a big supporter of the recently announced Australian Space Agency being led by another Monash figure, former CSIRO boss Dr Megan Clark AC.
The agency will be industry-driven, with an early priority being a decision on a launch site for Australian space technology companies such as the Gilmours’ business.
“At the end of the day, it’s one part of the diverse core science being done to learn more about Mars and more about our solar system. There are a lot of different missions now pursuing this, and they’re all expanding our knowledge base.”
Gilmour says there’s already consensus about undertaking a signature space mission on which Australian companies can work together. In the long term, he can see the development of space mining as a specialist area for Australia: “There are a lot of volatiles and metals such as platinum that can potentially be mined in the asteroid belt – although getting cargo back through the Earth’s atmosphere won’t be easy.”
In many ways, the space technology entrepreneurs are democratising the space industry, ending the dominance of the big government agencies that have been in control since the 1960s.
Mark Fittock, Space Systems Engineer, OHB System, Germany
For Mark Fittock, his role as project manager/space systems engineer at OHB System, in Bremen, Germany, is the realisation of a boyhood dream to work in space technology. It not only directed an unconventional pairing of degrees at Monash, but has culminated in him working at the forefront of solar system exploration.
When he left school in 2001, Fittock “jumped into” a double degree in astrophysics and mechanical engineering at Monash. It was an unusual combination at the time, but he says it entailed an ideal marriage of theory and practice – well-suited, it turned out, to a frontier research field such as space. It’s embodied particularly in the most recent flight mission on which he worked at DLR (German Aerospace Centre, Germany’s equivalent of NASA). He developed a probe that will go deeper into the Mars surface than any previous instrument. The probe, called HP3, is scheduled to arrive and start work on the planet in November 2018.
Its goal is to measure and analyse heat being generated by the planet. All planets have heat and energy still being fuelled by the material from which they were formed. It’s this energy that gives rise to magnetic fields, volcanoes and movements in a planet’s crust that cause quakes.
Fittock’s HP3 probe will punch itself down to five metres, studying the heat coming from subterranean Mars to better understand the nature of Mars’ core and whether it was formed from the same material as Earth. This information might also provide more insights into the formation of the solar system as a whole.
The probe is only the length of a school ruler and weighs about one kilogram, but represents an extraordinary engineering feat. Fittock explains that it works a little like a self-hammering nail: “It hits against itself to push down, and this gets harder the deeper it goes because the sand underneath is progressively compressed, so this little probe needs to work really hard. It also has to be able to correct its line if it hits a rock or stone … and then send information back to Earth.
“There have been considerable technical and engineering challenges to develop a reliable, autonomous tool that is going to work on another planet,” he says, with understatement.
This diversity of research is one of the reasons Fittock is excited about this new era of space exploration, and why he moved to Europe in 2007 after completing his Monash studies.
“Unlike the earlier era dominated by a few big government agencies, today there’s not one company or one person making something happen. It’s all about international collaboration and cooperation.”
Fittock says his new role at OHB System is quite broad and, having developed and built the HP3 probe at DLR and sent it on its way, there are other exciting missions coming up.
A focus of some will be ‘small bodies’ – asteroids and comets that could unlock vast amounts of knowledge about the solar system and are potentially the first space bodies that humans are likely to seek to exploit commercially.
This has already added ‘space utilisation’ to industry vernacular, with mining one obvious long-term possibility, although Fittock regards space utilisation as also meaning the provision, generally, of a platform for technology development.
For example, he sees space industries being accelerated by developments in and utilisation of robotics and artificial intelligence: “Currently, there is still a lot of interface between spacecraft and people, but you can see that changing with developments in robotics and autonomy. These technologies will extend our exploration and knowledge-gathering capabilities throughout the solar system and beyond,” he says.
Working at the forefront of this endeavour, Fittock notes that the challenges and goals in space are unique and unquestionably difficult: “But we don’t pursue them because they are easy, we pursue them because it is frontier science; because it is challenging and potentially very rewarding.”