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RAAF, UNSW satellite separates to conduct deeper space research

written by Isabella Richards | September 13, 2021

The M2 mission, completed in collaboration between the Royal Australian Air Force and UNSW Canberra, has reached its latest milestone, with its 6U CubeSat successfully separating into two parts over the weekend to continue deeper space research.

Following its launch from New Zealand in March this year, and under the control of UNSW Canberra, the M2 has now split into two smaller CubeSats  (M2-A and M2-B) and will now continue to orbit in formation flying.

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According to the RAAF and UNSW Canberra, formation flying enables them to conduct research into satellite control mechanisms, space domain awareness, and inter-satellite communications.

According to the Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts, the M2 mission is Australia’s “most complex” CubeSat – miniature satellite – mission.

Russell Boyce, director of UNSW Canberra Space, said on LinkedIn the separation occurred at 2:55pm Canberra time on Friday.

“A careful drift will be followed by formation stabilisation employing LEO aerodynamics, and then it will be time for next steps,” he said.

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The two newly separated satellites will be able to communicate with each other as well as ground stations back here on earth, giving better quality data, with greater detail and less lag time.

“This collaboration allows small satellites to be used for evaluation of technologies that may eventually be placed onto more complex space systems, such as large communications or earth observation satellites,” AVM Roberts said.

She said the initiation of formation flying is a milestone for the defence space domain, as the separation will allow for deeper “on-orbit research”.

“The two satellites are packed with payloads such as optical telescopes, which are informing future Defence surveillance concepts,” she added.

Courtney Bright, UNSW Canberra’s flight operations lead announced the achievement on LinkedIn, and said the move has been in the making for a long time.

She captured two photos of the CubeSats 17 seconds after the separation, which she said was a “challenge” of its own.

“We had to juggle large uncertainties in the physical separation time, the drift rate of the two spacecraft, separation-induced rotation, as well as lighting conditions when we were constrained to execute the separation approaching eclipse,” Bright said.

Each of the CubeSats are equipped with advanced radios and telescopes to gather remote sensing information.

Significantly, they can process information through advanced artificial intelligence techniques, which can be reconfigured during flight.

The UNSW Canberra team was able to successfully perform in-space AI using on-board computing as part of this next step – an Australian first.

Further, satellite was almost entirely designed and built in Australia in a collaboration between Air Force, UNSW Canberra Space, and a domestic supply chain of Australian companies.

Air Commodore Philip Gordon said UNSW Canberra engaged with around 30 Australian companies for the M2 mission.

“M2 is not only significant for Defence’s space domain, but also for advancing Australia’s burgeoning space industry,” he said.

“This is an example of the world-class space capabilities on offer by Australian industry and academia – showcasing their depth of talent, ingenuity and collaborative spirit.”

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