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6 mins read 29 Jun 2020

From Space Beer to the Space Agency: the Saber Astronautics story

Saber Astronautics is a local space company on the move… And one that is helping to build Australia’s space industry for the future.

An artist's impression of Australia's Mission Control Centre. Credit: Australian Space Agency

As Australia seeks to establish itself in the global space sector, an industry that is expected to be worth over US$1.1 trillion by 2040, local companies are set to benefit from government funding and grants meant to accelerate the development of infrastructure to enable the launch and control of spacecraft from Australian territory.

Part of the national government’s strategy is the Space Infrastructure Fund, a nearly \$20 million investment in seven infrastructure projects including $6 million for the development of Australia’s Mission Control Centre, also known as the Responsive Space Operations Centre (RSOC), in South Australia. The RSOC is to be a one-stop-shop solution for Australia, suitable for all classes of missions from the small satellite requirements of today to the astronautic needs of tomorrow.

Recently, this grant was awarded to Saber Astronautics, a company on a mission to reduce the barriers to entry to space by making spaceflight as easy as child's play. They subsequently received a further almost $800,000 to lead a project to open-source software to connect satellites to mission control centres. But if you have not yet heard of the company that is set to play a pivotal role in Australia’s space industry, now is the time for a formal introduction.

Who is Saber Astronautics?

Saber Astronautics was launched in 2008 with a small 2-person laboratory in Manly, New South Wales, and has grown to include labs in Boulder and Colorado Springs in the US as well as in Sydney. The Sydney office will soon have 15 full-time staff, with additional people in part-time and contract roles. Saber also has an internship program that has trained over 100 Australian space engineers, many of whom are now working in space programs around the world.

But what do they do? That small 2-person team over a decade ago were interested in solving two problems: how to make spacecraft more survivable using machine learning, and how to make space operations as easy as a video game. Today, their technologies in data algorithms and space mission control software are used by the likes of NASA, the US Space Force, and the RAAF, and they can now add the Australian Space Agency to the growing list of companies utilising their products and services.

Playing Video Games

The Predictive Interactive Groundstation Interface (PIGI). Credit: Saber Astronuatics

One of Saber’s key technologies is known as PIGI, the Predictive Interactive Groundstation Interface. PIGI is a modern mission control app with a video-game-like interface that is easy to learn and use, but powerful enough to provide operators with all the real-time data to run a mission. It represents a fusion of the latest techniques in human factors, artificial intelligence and dynamic 3D data visualisation to make it easy for spacecraft operators to monitor, fly and rapidly diagnose faults in spacecraft systems.

Coming up later this year everyone will have the opportunity to use PIGI as part of Saber’s Quest For Blue. This is a competition where contestants will be given a budget of US$2 million to design a satellite constellation with PIGI that provides the maximum amount of coverage of the Earth’s surface while tackling some real-world design challenges. With potential internships with Saber’s partners up for grabs, this is a great opportunity for anyone interested in joining the space industry to show they have the desire and the aptitude to become a space professional.

And... Beer

Vostok Space Beer. Credit: Saber Astronautics

Just in case you are thinking that being a major player in the space industry means there’s no room left for fun, think again. The world’s first beer for space, Vostok Space Beer, was developed by Saber in a joint venture with the 4 Pines brewing company. But there is a serious side to this too… A lot of science went into the design of the bottle and the beer itself so that it could be poured and enjoyed despite the changes in human physiology in zero gravity.

Working in Space on Earth

To get a bit more insight into the company and find out what it’s like to work for one of Australia’s most successful space start-ups, I talked to Aidan O’Brien, the Head of Infrastructure and Analytics at Saber in Sydney. Something Aidan was keen to reinforce was Saber’s role in the democratisation of space – making it accessible to everyone.

“A part of the problem we’re trying to solve is to make space easy for anyone to be a part of. This is important because mission control software can take anywhere from 6 months to a year to learn to use, and that’s even before starting to play with the spacecraft.”

It was this approach that helped Saber secure the Space Infrastructure Fund grant. “The Mission Control Centre grant specifically asked for next-generation operations. While many control centres around the world are still using designs with 20 operators and spreadsheets, we have over a decade of machine learning experience on spacecraft and have demonstrated in live operations multi-continent handovers in virtual reality.”

Aidan began as an intern at Saber nearly six years ago, and now manages the server development team and the machine learning projects. “Before Saber I was in the Navy, working as a radio and Satcom operator along with a fair bit of computer network administration.” It was his exposure to satellite communications systems that set him on a trajectory into the space industry.

Now Aidan and the whole Saber team are set to help establish Australia’s burgeoning space industry as an integral part of the broader economy. “We are looking to help grow the industry in Australia and move away from the negative view that we can’t do space in Australia and should just buy it from overseas.” And with their track record of innovation and success and a clear vision for the future, it looks as though Saber is the right company to propel Australia’s space capabilities to the next level.

Learn more about Saber Astronautics on their website