Canberra company Skykraft prepares to launch satellites onboard SpaceX rocket

In an unassuming building on the old Canberra Institute of Technology campus in Reid, the largest ever Australian-made payload to go into space is being assembled.

With antennae made from snipped up metal tape measures in frames drilled in a Queanbeyan workshop, Canberra-based space services company Skykraft will launch seven small satellites, weighing 300kg in total, into orbit onboard a SpaceX rocket in June next year.

Chief engineer Doug Griffin said the payload was the first in a planned ‘satellite constellation’ of more than 200 spacecraft, which would act as an air traffic management system to provide continuous coverage of planes across the globe.

“At the moment when an aircraft is flying from Sydney for example toward Los Angeles, as soon as it takes off it’s got really good coverage with air traffic control, but once it gets over the Pacific it sort of disappears off the radar,” Dr Griffin said.

Despite restrictions in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic reducing the number of aircraft in the skies, air traffic is expected to make a resurgence in coming years.

Chief Innovation Officer Craig Benson said the goal of the system was to make air travel “safer, faster, cheaper and with fewer emissions.”

“Space is not really about ‘space’, it’s about the earth,” Dr Benson said.

“We also talk directly into the cockpit so the pilots can talk on the same radio that they use to taxi at Sydney airport all the way across the Pacific to land in Los Angeles without having to go into black zones where they have to increase separation and burn more fuel as a result.”

Commercial space companies create competition in the market

Skykraft’s executive chairman Mark Skidmore says commercial space launch companies have caused launch costs to drop and allowed smaller enterprises to make it to space.(Supplied)

Former Civil Aviation Safety Authority chief executive and now Skykraft’s executive chairman, retired Air Vice Marshall Mark Skidmore said recent drops in launch costs driven by rising competition amongst commercial space launch companies was making it possible for smaller enterprises to put their technology into orbit for trial.

“The actual launch costs are coming right down and that makes it so accessible to people like us,” Air Vice Marshall Skidmore said.

“We can actually talk to companies like SpaceX, who we now have contracts directly with.

Air Vice Marshall Skidmore said keeping the cost of satellites down was another important factor, and the company was looking to reduce expenses by selling spare room onboard their spacecraft to other local space industry developers,

Demonstration payloads including a trial of a new propulsion system powered by the key chemical found in mothballs will hitch a ride on the spacecraft to be launched in 2022.

The ANU’s project leader Professor Rod Boswell said “it’s a classic and beautiful” example of universities, including the Australian National University, the University of Melbourne and Swinburne University of Technology, working with students and industry to speed up technology development.

“We’re trying to make this liaison between what the university does and commercialising the system and testing it in space a bit of a ‘norm’, so people can see that if you’re doing research at university you can get your product out and it can work in a commercial sphere.”