When Kimberley Clayfield began reading science fiction novels as a kid, it wasn’t just the stories that drew her in. Instead, it was a sense of wonder.
“I was fascinated by the vast unknown expanses of space. The excitement of using cutting-edge technologies to explore undiscovered aspects of the Universe has never left me,” she says.
It’s a fascination Kimberley has managed to channel into a successful career. So successful, in fact, that in 2014 she was awarded the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Lawrence Sperry Award, an honour bestowed by the international aerospace sector’s largest professional association. She was the first Australian recipient of the award; the list of previous winners includes a former Apollo Mission Controller, a previous NASA Chief Technologist and the first American woman in space.
Awards aside, Kimberley’s aerospace career has been broad, spanning national space policy development, Earth observation, space situational awareness, the international Square Kilometre Array radio-telescope project, and satellite technology development programs.
“CSIRO has developed advanced methodologies for using satellite data in a huge variety of ways,” she says, noting projects like a collaboration with Geoscience Australia on the Sentinel Hotspots live bushfire tracking application, and the use of the NovaSAR-1 satellite to map flood extents.
Today, as our Space Program Director, Kimberley’s role focuses on the strategic development and application of CSIRO’s space capabilities, technologies and facilities for the national benefit. She’s also actively involved in supporting Australia’s burgeoning space sector more broadly, including as a member of the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee on Space and Radio Science.
“It’s a really exciting time of growth across the sector” she says.
“One of these growth areas is technology translation – redeveloping technology from adjacent sectors and capabilities into space. And it works the other way too, with space technologies and learnings feeding back into terrestrial industries and applications to enhance existing domain expertise.”
For example, our mineral resources and robotics teams are taking their decades worth of expertise and applying it to space exploration.
With humans looking to return to the Moon, the robotic missions preceding crewed missions will be investigating the Moon’s surface to identify materials able to be extracted and used to support further exploration and potentially habitation. The lunar regolith – Moon dust - contains valuable resources that could be used to support further exploration, but it’s also a challenging substance to manipulate. Lunar regolith contains up to 45 per cent oxygen by weight but it’s chemically bound to other elements. Oxygen can used for fuel or air.
“Our team has created a Moon-like environment to safely test and evaluate rovers and related equipment being developed to explore lunar terrain and resources. Our ability to simulate the lunar terrain at this scale is an exciting advancement for the development of space technology in Australia, and this facility is available to be used by researchers and industry” says Kimberley.
“Space is both a unique environment, which can be studied, explored and used to catalyse, develop and apply science and technology – and an enabling technology – a source of data and services which can be integrated into other workflows for a wide variety of terrestrial purposes.”
Earth observation data is a valuable resource for understanding and monitoring our changing environment.
“In addition to providing calibration and validation support to international Earth observation satellites we are developing adaptive satellite technology and advanced data analytics platforms to support the growth of Australia’s Earth observation capabilities.”
“All of these projects will advance the Australian space industry and the development of sovereign space capabilities for Australia,” says Kimberley.
It is these types of projects where space technology can assist with many of the challenges we face in Australia, including climate change mitigation, environment and water management, agricultural biosecurity plus societal benefits.
Having given her personal time as a volunteer educator with the South Australian Space School for 15 years, Kimberley is also keen for the education sector to embrace a deeper level of involvement in space sciences.
“We need to actively engage Australia’s young talent in space activities through STEM outreach. Fostering and nurturing the ideas and energy that the next generation can bring to the sector is key to Australia’s future success,” she says.