9 mins read 16 Sep 2021

RAAF & UNSW Canberra M2 CubeSats Successfully separate in Orbit

After a successful launch and deployment earlier this year, UNSW Canberra Space’s joint satellite project with the RAAF, the M2 CubeSat, has successfully separated into its individual components, becoming M2-A and M2-B.

The M2 Satellite at the moment of separation captured by the onboard “selfie-cam”. Credit: UNSW Canberra Space

An Australian-developed satellite, the M2 CubeSat has fulfilled the next major step in its mission, separating into two components, after it was successfully launched in March this year onboard Rocket Labs They go up so fast mission. 

The two 6U CubeSats went up as one 12U satellite and have successfully split into two, now called M2-A and M2-B. The project, which is the final satellite in a three satellite project supported by the Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF), has been developed to test and refine a number of world-leading CubeSat technologies. These include technologies that support Earth Observation, maritime surveillance and satellite communications. 

The two new satellites, M2-A and M2-B, are now flying in formation – a first for Australian CubeSats, and a world-class capability. 

“This is a very important milestone for UNSW Canberra – separating these satellites on orbit and in a gentle, controlled way is a serious challenge, as is formation flying,” Spacecraft Project Lead Andrin Tomaschett said. 

The importance of the project was not lost on the team according to UNSW Canberra Space Director, Professor Russell Boyce, with some quite intense weeks leading up to the event itself.

“The evolving M2 mission requires ongoing software development, testing and upload, and that was happening in order to make sure everything for the separation was ready to go. Then we did some extensive rehearsals, practicing everything that would happen in the separation procedure without actually pulling the trigger on releasing them,” he said. 

“The reason for that is that if the spacecraft were released in directions other than along the track of the orbit, then they will be put into slightly different orbit planes that re-converge on the other side of the world, with associated risk of collision. We had to make sure we got that right. And we did.”

According to Flight Operations Lead Dr Courtney Bright, it really was a team effort. Dr Bright’s role in the mission was to lead the integrated system testing before launch, plan and execute the mission operations, and coordinate the separation event. 

After a couple of attempts to complete the separation, which ended in aborting the attempt for various reasons, it finally happened on Friday 10 September, earlier this month. 

“We knew we had about a 50% chance of success on any given separation attempt because we had set such strict go/no-go criteria, so we were fully expecting to need to repeat the attempt into the weekend. It was a brilliant surprise to find out on Friday afternoon that it had worked!” said Dr Bright. 

“I’m proud to have been a part of that. The detailed planning for the separation involved experts from operations, ADCS, astrodynamics, electrical engineering, software engineering, mechanical engineering, thermal engineering, project management, and more – essentially every team member had something critical to bring to the table, which is something I love about space missions,” she added.

First there was one, now there are two

LeoLabs Australia have been providing tracking support to UNSW Canberra Space. Credit: LeoLabs Australia.

Supporting Australia’s space situational awareness, the data captured by the M2 CubeSats will inform maritime surveillance, weather observations and low-orbit satellite traffic. This information is processed through advanced in-orbit artificial intelligence, on a platform reconfigurable throughout the mission.  

“The two 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 – all fundamentally important for Australia’s defence. This innovative home-grown approach has been designed to meet Australia’s unique requirements for sovereign space capability,” Air Vice-Marshal Cath Roberts said, also commenting on how this highly complex CubeSat mission is a landmark moment for the defence space domain. 

“As we depend on space infrastructure for resource management, secure communications and data collection during extreme weather events and bushfires, building our sovereign space capabilities is critical for Australian security,” added Professor Boyce. 

LeoLabs Australia, which provides support for Collision on Launch Assessment (COLA), Launch and Early Orbit Processing (LEOP), orbit change and stability reporting, collision avoidance, and proximity operations were tracking the satellite as it separated into M2-A & M2-B. The tracking enabled the team to watch as one satellite became two independent ones. 

“LeoLabs Australia has been providing UNSW Space support with access to our space tracking data through our online data platform,” said LeoLabs Australia, Director, Terry van Haren. 

“We are tracking M2-A and now M2-B through our four global space radar sites in New Zealand, Costa Rica, Midlands Texas and our 2D system in Alaska. We are averaging 4-5 passes per day to obtain accurate tracking data on both satellites.”

“That data is processed in our cloud-based data platform and provided to UNSW Space for their analysis and assessment. Good thing our radars are persistent, reliable and responsive; and they work all-weather, day and night.”

LeoLabs Inc is a Silicon Valley company formed in 2016. Registered in Australia in 2020 the company is now building capacity to provide services directly to the Australian Space Enterprise according to van Haren. 

Sam Boland, Control Lead at UNSW Canberra Space, was behind the crucial piece of technology to achieve successful separation, known as the Attitude Control and Determination System.

“This system was designed and developed in-house at UNSW Canberra Space and ultimately demonstrated via the M2 Pathfinder mission,” Mr Boland said. “It’s a major leap to perform successful attitude control in the final space environment as on-ground simulations and testing can only get you so far.”

Professor Boyce said the spacecraft was now carefully drifting apart, with formation stabilisation employing low Earth orbit aerodynamics to follow in the near future. This effect, together with strategic deployment of solar arrays and the on-board attitude control system enables the team to vary the satellites’ separation distance at will.

Sovereign Capability Development

The M2 satellite before it went into space, the two separate satellites M2-A & M2-B can be clearly seen. Credit: UNSW Canberra Space.

This unique event has enabled participation from Australian and international organisations with ground-based and space-based surveillance systems to detect the two CubeSats coming apart. Canberra-based companies Clearbox Systems and EOS, along with InTrack Solutions from Adelaide and international players LEOlabs, Northern Space Security and USAF, and 10 other organisations, have combined their efforts with UNSW Canberra and the RAAF for the task.  

This is a significant milestone in Australia’s space journey, with the M2 program developing and showcasing not only Australian capability but also the Australian space industry. With a Head of the Australian Space Agency, Enrico Palmero, tweeting, “The M2 mission is a great example of an Australian entity producing, testing and fielding satellite capability. This mission perfectly aligns with our purpose at the Agency to grow the space sector and create jobs for Australians – now and into the future.”

Professor Boyce echoed these and Air Vice-Marshal Roberts' sentiments stating that this is one of the most complex CubeSat programs ever attempted and will enable both UNSW Canberra Space and the RAAF to gain experience and capability in the development and operation of in-orbit space science and technology missions.

“It’s a step jump, not just the separation but the transition into formation flying. Australia now has demonstrated sovereign capability in elements of the technology needed for establishing next-generation intelligent constellations where the individual satellites work together as a team. Both Australian skills and know-how, and future Australian space technology opportunities, have taken a huge step forwards,” he said. 

And it is not only the separation of the two spacecraft that has been achieved since M2 entered orbit earlier this year. Professor Boyce added that the spacecraft has the ability to alter its operational parameters leading to the potential to change missions once deployed. 

“The most significant achievement is that we demonstrated that we can use the on-board processing capability of the spacecraft to apply and re-train (on the fly) artificial intelligence algorithms and get information generated by the AI back to ground.” 

“We did so with a large data set of images pre-loaded before launch, to prove that the power-hungry onboard AI environment functions properly in space, and it did. It’s an Australian first, and one of the first worldwide. This positions us to apply the same AI capability to images we will collect with the onboard imaging systems when we get to that stage of the mission.”

The program which has included the M1 and M2 pathfinder missions have resulted in three spin-off companies, including Skycraft and Infinity Avionics. It has also supported a significant local supply chain of some 30 companies, leading to this being a significant program in Australia’s space infrastructure. 

The space missions will also deliver research and educational outcomes for Defence and civilian students studying engineering at UNSW Canberra, strengthening Australia’s future space workforce. 

The two satellites will now slowly diverge in a controlled manner as the team at UNSW Canberra Space prepare the spacecraft for mission objectives such as maritime surveillance and space domain awareness. So there are exciting times still ahead. 

According to Professor Boyce, the project has gone well so far but they are taking it slowly. 

“M2 is arguably one of the most complex Space 2.0 missions ever attempted, and many things about it are pushing the boundaries. We are bringing a professional and systematic mindset to it, in the same way, we apply absolutely professional space systems engineering approaches to developing the missions in the first place. We are taking our time and making sure we get it right,” he concluded.

The CubeSats as the separated taken by the onboard "self-cam" Credit: UNSW Canberra Space.