The University is providing high-precision positioning data and telemetry support for a range of space missions, including the SpaceX missions to resupply the International Space Station.

The collaboration is the University’s latest contribution to the global space industry. Over the past two decades its researchers have worked with many space agencies including NASA, the European Space Agency, and the China National Space Administration.

The University operates a continent-wide collection of radio telescopes, called the AuScope VLBI Array. It is the only university in the world with this capability. The scale is important because the accuracy of astronomical measurements is determined by the combined size of the observing instruments.

Three widely spaced dishes (in Hobart, in Katherine in the Northern Territory, and in Yarragadee in Western Australia) facilitate a technique known as Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), which is critically important to spacecraft navigation and control. It allows the simultaneous calculation of a craft’s position relative to both Earth and space, thus allowing orbit and direction to be accurately calculated. Conversely it also enhances the accuracy of GPS and of satellite mapping of the Earth’s surface.

The data gathered is fed to the International VLBI Service (IVS), the organisation responsible for integrating all VLBI data from around the world.

In 2014, the astrophysics and geospatial data gathered by the University resulted in a 30 per cent improvement in measurements for the southern hemisphere. The following year, IVS instructed its global network of 34 contributing observatories to copy the University’s protocols.

By then, the University was already working closely with SpaceX. In an agreement struck in 2012, researchers committed to provide the company with tracking and downlink services for numerous missions, including resupply journeys to the International Space Station.

Its first major mission came the same year, when the 12-metre telescope in its Mount Pleasant Observatory, near the Hobart suburb of Cambridge, was used to monitor the launch, docking, and return of Dragon, the first crewless commercial space vehicle ever to travel to the space station.

The observatory received video and telemetry information from the orbiting craft and forwarded it to SpaceX’s California control centre.

Also:

  • The University is partnering with the IVS to design sensitive, low-maintenance broadband receiver systems.
  • The University has delivered telemetry and telecommunications for several successful space missions, including the ESA’s Mars Express (2013–14), China’s Chang’e 3 (2014), and Russia’s RadioAstron (2014 to present).
  • PhD students who have received hands-on observing experience at the University’s facilities are going on to win jobs with NASA and other international agencies.

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About Professor Simon Ellingsen

Professor Ellingsen is a Professor in Physics and Radio astronomy and Head of Discipline for Physics. His major areas of research are in the formation of massive stars, in particular through the study of methanol masers and other molecular maser species. He is also involved in research of active galactic nuclei through very long baseline interferometry, flux density monitoring and studies of megamaser emission.

View Professor Simon Ellingsen's full researcher profile