SmartSat CRC and NASA collaborate on astronaut emergency comms

Wednesday, 23 November, 2022

SmartSat CRC and NASA collaborate on astronaut emergency comms

The SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre has announced an agreement to further develop new search and rescue (SAR) beacon technologies in partnership with NASA. It is the latest in a long history of cooperation in the field of SAR between Australia and the United States, with NASA and SmartSat having previously collaborated to advance satellite-based emergency communications and SAR by combining communications and navigation technology.

The latest project is studying a new SAR system for future human exploration on the surface of the Moon, known as LunaSAR. It acknowledges that 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, the 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.

Under the agreement, NASA’s Search and Rescue Laboratory (SARLab) at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center will bring experts to the project to help guide and review the technical direction. NASA will also provide access to unique and comprehensive test facilities for assessment of performance of the new technology as it is being developed by the SmartSat-funded research team, led by industry partner Safety from Space. The research team will design a new specialised 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 SAR 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,” said NASA Search and Rescue Office Chief Dr Lisa Mazzuca. “This is pioneering work that takes such a dedicated international partnership to get to fruition.”

Mazzuca’s SAR team has the full support and sponsorship of the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Program at NASA Headquarters. SmartSat is meanwhile meeting with a number of space industry organisations and emergency services representatives to discuss applications for the SAR beacon technology in both terrestrial and space environments.

“This agreement is not just a fantastic development for Safety from Space’s low-power, high-efficiency safety technology, it signals that Australia’s space sector is developing globally important technologies,” said SmartSat CEO Andy Koronios. “NASA has been instrumental in the development journey for this essential safety technology — and while it is early stages, we now have the further potential of this Australian-developed tech playing an important role in lunar and Martian exploration missions under the Artemis program.”

Safety from Space co-founder Dr Mark Rice added, “Having had the support of NASA to modernise our second-generation beacon for use on Earth, we are delighted to be entering into an exciting new phase of our development. This agreement will open exciting new opportunities for our technology for users, including emergency management professionals and first responders, as well as helping us to develop important safeguards for astronauts on space missions.”

Image caption: LunaSAR concept graphic. Image credit: NASA/Reese Patillo.

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