As part of the partnership between SpaceWatch.Global and The Strategist, we have been granted permission to publish selected articles. This is “Seven Sisters project taking Australia further into space” by Malcolm Davis, originally published on 29 January 2021.
In a previous article, I made the case for Australia developing and launching its own interplanetary mission—a probe to the moon, or to Mars or other locations in the inner solar system—that exploited commercial small-satellite technologies and low-cost sovereign space launch facilities. Such a step would raise Australia’s international profile as a new space power and in turn provide opportunities for our growing commercial space sector to secure investment from domestic and overseas partners.
So, it’s very welcome news that a consortium of companies in South Australia, led by small-satellite developer Fleet Space Technologies, is preparing for a series of missions to the moon as well as planning for future missions to Mars.
The Seven Sisters project aims to support the US Artemis space program’s goal of returning humans to the moon by assisting with exploration techniques, remote operations and communications—hence the project’s name: in Greek mythology, the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, were the companions of Artemis, the goddess of the moon.
Over the next few months, Fleet Space will launch three small satellites—Centauri 3, 4 and 5—into low-earth orbit, where they’ll connect with a set of terrestrial sensors. The sensor data will inform the development of future satellites and low-power, passive surface sensors that can generate deep subsurface modelling to support the hunt for water and other valuable resources on the moon.
The next step will be sending new satellites to the moon in 2023 as part of the Artemis program’s commercial lunar payload service. A second mission in 2024 will deploy large arrays on the lunar surface, along with rovers. Similar missions are being planned to Mars in 2025 and 2027.
Seven Sisters was established in 2019, but planning for the lunar mission was kept under wraps and details were only released publicly in December. The project will bring together some of Australia’s leading capabilities in space.
Fleet Space has joined forces with AROSE, a consortium that specialises in remote operations technology; geospatial mapping company Fugro; and the University of Adelaide and University of New South Wales. The other participants are energy technology start-up Unearthed, mining company Oz Minerals, and small-satellite firm Tyvak Australia, whose parent company is based in the US.
The project will be Australia’s first ‘moonshot’ mission, a concept first raised in the civil space strategy released by the Australian Space Agency in April 2019. The agency’s hope is that such missions will ‘inspire the nation and provide stretch, increase capability, and build collaboration in the space sector’. Together with Australia’s commitment of $150 million for our commercial space sector to participate in the Artemis project and the government’s signing of NASA’s Artemis Accords last October, the Seven Sisters project reinforces the message that Australia’s space ambitions go beyond simply a ground segment or a few satellites in orbit.
This is a logical next step for our space sector. It complements the local manufacture of satellites for terrestrial communication systems and the establishment of a sovereign space launch capability. Pursuing Australian interplanetary missions would represent a further maturation of our rapidly developing space sector, which is perhaps one of the most vibrant in the world.
The project demonstrates that, through the private sector, small and middle powers like Australia can achieve rapid success in ‘Space 2.0’ and ‘newSpace’. It highlights the way space exploration is changing in the 21st century, enabling commercial companies, including small start-ups, to be active in space and to take the lead in some areas. Sending probes to the moon and across the inner solar system has become more achievable and affordable, and such efforts shouldn’t be seen as being open only to the largest space actors.
It also highlights how quickly the national debate on space has changed. A few years ago, Australian thinking on space was dominated by a risk-averse and limited perspective and an emphasis on ground or ‘user’ segments. Now we have a more balanced and ambitious vision of our future that focuses on ‘upstream’ space-based capabilities. Whether it’s launching satellites into earth orbit or space probes to the moon and planets—ultimately, and ideally, from Australian launch sites—we seem to be on the right path.
The same shift to more sophisticated thinking can be seen in Australian defence and national security debates on the role of space. Most national commentators now recognise the benefits of a sovereign space capability for our defence organisation, whether for communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or for other space-control-related tasks, including responsive launch.
Key tasks over the next two years for Defence will be developing a coherent, unclassified space strategy and thinking about organisational reform to integrate a greater degree of space expertise into the department and the Australian Defence Force—perhaps by establishing an ADF Space Command within Air Force HQ. In undertaking this review, Defence will have to be forward-looking, ambitious and ready to identify and exploit new technologies, most of which are emerging from the civil space sector.
Exploiting that speed of change and harnessing an ability to take an interesting idea or technology and move quickly to turn it into credible and useful capability—for civil or scientific space applications, or for defence and national security—will be vital. The Seven Sisters project has demonstrated how adoption of a new concept or technology can open up new prospects for national and international collaboration.
By moving quickly to identify an opportunity to support the Artemis program, the Seven Sisters project shows that applying technological expertise to rapidly achieve ambitious and bold goals can create opportunities for further development. The project could see Australia play an expanding and ongoing role in supporting a permanent human presence on the lunar surface by detecting and mining water and other resources necessary to support a lunar base. That’s one huge leap from days past, when Australia’s space ambitions were planted firmly on the ground.
Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst at ASPI.
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