(Source – NASA/Reese Patillo)

Australia’s SmartSat and NASA to collaborate on astronaut emergency communications

Emergency communications are vital wherever one may be on the planet today. In the past, communications from remote locations or disaster areas were a huge challenge, especially for rescue operations.

Thankfully, technology has improved emergency communications tremendously today. From IoT sensors and mobile phones that are able to send out distress calls to enhanced satellite communication visuals that can be used to run search and rescue operations in most parts of the world.

While the situation is improving on the planet, there is also the need to ensure emergency communications can work properly in space. With space travel and missions becoming increasingly frequent, ensuring communications are not easily disrupted is a prerogative for any mission today.

As such, NASA and Australia’s SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre have been collaborating to improve search and rescue operations. In 2020, NASA and SmartSat announced a collaboration to advance satellite-based emergency communications and search and rescue, combining communications and navigation technology. This new project deepens the strategic collaboration in this important field.

Both organizations have now agreed to further develop new search and rescue beacon technologies. Known as LunaSAR, the new system is focused on future human exploration on the surface of the moon. Astronaut safety is paramount and the ability to reliably communicate an emergency incident must be maintained, even if other services are not available.

Similar to distress beacons on Earth, this system will provide miniature low-power radio beacons mounted on space suits and lunar rover vehicles. The technology will support SOS and two-way messaging over a lunar orbiting satellite constellation.  It will also allow the beacon location to be accurately determined, in the absence of GPS.  This information will be provided securely and quickly to both the mission control centre on Earth and the response team on the moon who are able to take immediate action.

emergency communications

(Source – NASA/Reese Patillo )

NASA is expected to provide personnel and access to unique and comprehensive test facilities for assessment of the performance of the new technology as it is being developed by SmartSat funded research team, led by industry partner Safety from Space. The research team will design a new specialized beacon for extra-terrestrial environments based on a new waveform.

As well as direct Artemis applications, they will also investigate the potential for enhanced services to extend beyond search and rescue to broader emergency management such as natural disaster warning systems.

“NASA is delighted to advance technology in this field, which will allow our astronauts exploring the Moon to do so knowing they have a system focused solely on their safety.  This is pioneering work that takes such a dedicated international partnership to get to fruition,” commented NASA Search and Rescue office Chief, Dr. Lisa Mazzuca.

For SmartSat CEO Andy Koronios, SmartSat CEO, the agreement signals that Australia’s space sector is developing globally important technologies. Koronios also highlighted that NASA has been instrumental in the development journey for this essential safety technology. While it is early stages, Koronios believes it will showcase the potential of this Australian-developed tech that is playing an important role in Lunar and Martian exploration missions under the Artemis program.

“This particular collaboration, with our research partners Safety from Space, the University of South Australia, and Flinders University, demonstrates the potential for Australia to develop critical space technologies from our world-leading research sector,” added Koronios.