Science has unlocked a multitude of innovations to better utilise the resources of our home planet; now terrestrial technologies are heading into space as that industry grows.
The Australian Space Agency aims to triple the size of Australia’s space sector to $12 billion and create 20,000 additional jobs on our shores by 2030.
Science for space
CSIRO’s Space Technology Future Science Platform (Space FSP) is combing the organisation’s existing technical strengths and technologies to identify those that could have value beyond Earth, and encourages innovations to transform Australia’s space industry capabilities.
“CSIRO has a strong heritage in radio astronomy and ground station operations and tracking. We’re now looking at technology that aligns with Australian civil space priorities to help grow the Australian space sector.”
The Space FSP team is scanning right across CSIRO’s broad horizons.
“That includes in-situ resource utilisation, remote operations, autonomous robotics, communications and tracking, technologies to support humans in space, materials and satellite technologies,” says Ms Latchman-Singh.
"Earth observation also remains an important focus area, as indicated by our recently launched AquaWatch Australia Mission"
Sensors everywhere all at once
CSIRO’s Mineral Resources business unit has developed a host of transferable technologies for Earth-bound industries.
Now, in collaboration with CSIRO’s Data61 and facilitated by the work of the Space FSP, in partnership with Boeing and NASA and with a grant from the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory, it’s taking one of them into orbit.
It’s a prime example of growing cross-collaboration between agencies, corporations and nations, which is vital to advancing the next generation of space technologies.
“CSIRO simply could not have done this without this inter-organisation collaboration, supported by the ISS National Lab Grant,” says Dr Marc Elmouttie, Mine Safety & Environment Leader, in CSIRO’s Mineral Resources business unit.
“It’s really exciting to be getting a payload onto the International Space Station, and this collaboration adds to the ‘wow’ factor.”
The payload preparing for launch is the Multi-Resolution Scanner (MRS).
“It’s the joining of two technologies developed in two different parts of CSIRO,” explains Dr Elmouttie.
“The stereo-depth fusion (SDF) technology, which fuses stereo vision systems with depth-imaging systems to create very high-resolution 3D images of the environment came from CSIRO’s Mineral Resources business unit for the mining industry.”
SDF is being paired with Wildcat SLAM (Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping), a 3D mapping solution developed by CSIRO’s Data61.
“Wildcat SLAM is already supporting commercialised technologies and it’s already had international success, such as its role in the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, where the team placed second in the final.”
Ground controls with major aplomb
The mining sector was the initial proof point for both technologies, and Dr Elmouttie says they matured through being developed for manufacturing applications.
Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, and CSIRO have collaborated on research projects in areas of mutual interest for more than three decades.
Back in 2018, after one of the annual reviews between CSIRO and Boeing to discuss progress on shared projects with Dr Elmouttie’s team, he got a phone call from one of his Boeing Australia colleagues asking him about adapting these scanning and mapping technologies to work on the ISS.
CSIRO and Boeing then started collaborating on defining requirements for a solution that would be fit for purpose. CSIRO’s Space FSP provided funding to design and build a prototype.
“Boeing advised that to get onto the ISS, it needed to be via a mechanism known as an ISS National Lab grant. Boeing and CSIRO submitted an application in 2021, it was successful and now, working with Boeing and NASA, we’re on track to launch in December,” says Dr Elmouttie.
By combining the two technologies, the MRS payload can be fitted onto a mobile platform to autonomously scan environments to produce three-dimensional maps, an invaluable tool in mineshafts and space vehicles alike.
“There’s a 3D printed housing, with levers for the astronaut to plug it into NASA’s Astrobee robot and latch it in place,” says Dr Elmouttie.
A range of several sensors – including cameras and depth sensors and an inertial measurement sensor – work together with the Wildcat SLAM and SDF algorithms to generate the data, and the robot provides the power source.
“The SLAM provides a low-resolution point-cloud map, and the stereo-depth fusion gives us the very high-resolution detail,” says Dr Elmouttie.
A future use case of the SDF could be for defect characterisation, where high-resolution detail is needed to assess the exterior of spacecraft. “This mission is targeting interior scanning, but the MRS is a platform technology for a host of space applications.”
Trials at NASA Ames using ground based Astrobee robots were conducted in August 2022 and March 2023. The payload has passed these major testing milestones and is being prepared for the final series of flight acceptance testing.
Preparing for launch
On this mission, the MRS will be used to build digital records in the confined ISS environment which is packed with technology.
“It’s a logistics use case, scanning to keep track of what’s going on in an environment that’s changing quite frequently,” says Dr Elmouttie.
“The second use case we want to explore is how this MRS payload mounted on robotic platforms could assist astronauts in their work onboard the space station,” he explains.
“They have several of these Astrobees on the ISS, and they can support different payloads. NASA is interested in exploring astronaut cobotics, where you have multiple robots assisting astronaut operations on a spacecraft or even robots providing ‘caretaker’ duties for uncrewed spacecraft. MRS is a compact, high-resolution, 3D sensing and mapping payload which could facilitate the sensing for these robots. It can also provide astronauts with situational awareness for their own operations.”
The December 2023 launch will deliver the MRS to the ISS where it has something of an open-ended assignment.
“NASA’s Payload Integration Manager has told us that if the experiments are delivering results, there’s no urgency to bring the payload back,” says Dr Elmouttie.
“We foresee this payload assisting science investigations for most of 2024, at least. It’s an ongoing opportunity to learn from an R&D point of view, and also to show innovations developed through our Space FSP in action.”
On track for a tech-transfer orbit
Another benefit of the collaboration to adapt the MRS for space is that the advances in its capabilities can now return to work on Earth.
“A lot of the technology development to make the MRS work in a compact, lightweight payload is directly translatable to mining,” says Dr Elmouttie.
“This combination of technologies is a unique solution, and discussions with industry partners are also investigating applications in manufacturing.”
For mining, Dr Elmouttie sees huge potential for underground applications.
“It could be cable bolting in an underground environment, where you inject cables into the rock and you need to localise the robotic tool relative to the features in the rock,” he says.
“Simultaneously having the course map for localisation as well as the very high-resolution 3D model in real time as you manipulate that robot is really important, and there’s no technology out there at the moment that does that.”
Geotechnical engineering is another area where the MRS could change operations.
“You need to characterise the fractures in the rock because of the implications for the stability of the opening,” he explains.
“Being able to simultaneously and with one sensor package understand where you are in the mine accurately through the SLAM, and also capture the very high-resolution data needed to characterise millimetre-size fractures in the rock is of huge value, too.”
In the future and with further modifications to the housing, the MRS could form part of technologies needed to support fully remote operations in an underground mining environment.
“The Space FSP is drawing across resources from all of CSIRO’s business units,” says Ms Latchman-Singh.
“The translation of tech from ground to space and then back to ground will have a significant impact, and collaboration is a critical success factor in driving innovation and pioneering space and terrestrial tech development, as we can see with the example of the MRS.”
The long list of Space FSP projects already underway is only the beginning of this inspiring journey of discovery.