Benefits for other Australian science


Spinoff benefits

Apart from the direct benefits of development of technologies for an optical communications link as described, there will clearly be side-benefits for other science disciplines. Although such spinoffs are difficult to predict and quantify, certain areas seem particularly likely to benefit.


The Australian Centre for Astrobiology (ACA), based at Macquarie University was established last year and is an affiliate member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. A major focus of the ACA research program is to study the planets Mars and Venus. ACA is currently involved in ground based observations of the atmosphere of Venus, a collaboration with scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Vikki Meadows and David Crisp). These observations use the IR windows in the Venus atmosphere (first discovered by David Allen using the Anglo-Australian Telescope) to probe the structure and composition of the Venus atmosphere at a range of levels including the lower atmosphere, the sulphuric acid cloud regions, and the airglow emission from the upper atmosphere. The success of these ground based observations is influencing the design of the next generation of spacecraft to explore Venus which will be able to perform similar studies at much higher spatial resolutions.

The ACA is also planning ground based observations of Mars using IR spectroscopy for the very favourable opposition of 2003. Adaptive optics will be used to obtain IR spectral mapping with 16km spatial resolution. These observations complement planned spacecraft studies from Mars Express (ESA) and Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (NASA) which will do similar studies from orbit at higher spatial resolution but lower spectral resolution. The aim of these studies is to use the IR spectrum to determine the surface mineral composition and in particular to look for signs of water and to choose sites for future missions which will search for past or present life. For these purposes the Reconnaisance Orbiter will be able to carry out spectral mapping with resolutions as small as 20cm.

The ground-based observations will complement the ACA's current program of using IR spectroscopy to map ancient hydrothermal systems on Earth, in preparation for searching for such systems on Mars. These systems are prime targets in the search for life on Mars.

The current data rate limitations of interplanetary radio communication severely limits the fraction of the planet surface that can be mapped at these high spatial resolution at either Venus or Mars. Optical communication systems could enable future space missions to perform much more extensive studies of this type.


In astronomy, existing applications for photonics technologies include AO, MCAO, LIGO, Square Kilometre Array, laser ranging, etc. The AAO is also keen to explore linkages with the commercial sector since the world-wide investment in optics and photonics outstrips almost all other technologies. In our push to solve the space communications problem (and spin-off enabling technologies for astronomical instrumentation), the consortium anticipates the potential for income from IP exploited by the commercial partners.

Participation in this proposed Centre of Excellence gains the AAO a valuable foothold in space technology, adding credibility to involvement in any future opportunities in space-based astronomical projects as well as capitalising on an international reputation for excellence in telescope systems technology.

Atmospheric Science

Australia has world class expertise in remote sensing. These technologies are dominant in current and planned planetary exploration missions.

Airborne Research Australia was formed through the MNRF programme in 1996. It capitalised on the international reputation of Jorg Hacker (Flinders University) for developing and operating compact and effective airborne platforms for atmospheric research. ARA now operates a fleet of four unique research aircraft and would be well positioned to contribute to instrument package development for the proposed airborne Mars exploration platforms.


The Australian National University is presently working with DSTO in collaboration with NASA and DARPA on research into biorobotic vision. The application is for autonomous vehicles, to be used as airborne rovers for planetary exploration. A simulated planetary exploration mission is planned at a "Mars analog site" in Northern Canada in 2004. Many of the underlying technologies for the mission have been demonstrated including optical flow for terrain following, stabilization using cheap optical sensors and compassing using sun position and the polarization pattern in the sky.

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Originally created by Andrew McGrath on July 10, 2002