Getting junk out of space


By Belinda Willis
Thursday, 26 March, 2020


Getting junk out of space

Research to tackle the growing need to find, capture and remove junk from space is advancing at the Australian Institute for Machine Learning (AIML) in Adelaide.

AIML Machine Learning for Space Director Tat-Jun Chin and his team have won a $600,000 grant from the SmartSat CRC to continue its work in detecting, tracking and cataloguing space junk, which is created by satellites continuing to orbit once they run out of fuel, they run out of propulsion or their technology becomes obsolete and they are no longer required.

The SmartSat CRC was established last year to work with the Adelaide-based Australian Space Agency, contributing to the Australian Government’s goal of tripling the size of the space sector to $12 billion and creating up to 20,000 jobs by 2030. The space junk project is based on developing a space-based surveillance network and tackling the growing challenge of crowding in space.

Assoc Prof Chin said his team was one of the first to apply an effective machine learning approach to the problem of estimating the pose of a space object from an input image so it can be removed.

“In order to remove a piece of debris from another spacecraft, such as by casting a net, harpooning or grabbing with a robotic arm, it is vital to estimate the position and orientation of the debris relative to the approaching spacecraft,” Assoc Prof Chin said.

The project involves University of Adelaide academics and researchers partnering with Inovor Technologies, a leading Australian space firm specialising in space situational awareness. It also includes scientists from The University of Queensland and The Australian National University.

Assoc Prof Chin said the SmartSat CRC is also waiting on the results of an application to partner with the European Space Agency to find novel ways to approach and remove junk from space.

Assoc Prof Chin said the centre, based in the city’s Lot Fourteen innovation neighbourhood that also houses the Australian Space Agency, had capability in its lab to further the research more broadly with robotic manipulation.

“We have a robotic arm here that we can train to solve the grabbing task, but putting it into space will require broader partnerships,” he said.

He hopes to work more closely with international agencies with the research as, “for a fledgling space industry and a fledgling space economy, having that international connection is vital”.

Assoc Prof Chin, who has won several awards for his research in artificial intelligence, said, “Space presents novel problems for artificial intelligence, for example, a lot of AI algorithms require a lot of data.

“If you have an autonomous car, relatively speaking, it’s not so hard to get that data, by capturing it from cars being driven.

“You can’t do that easily for a problem in space, since the cost of developing, launching and maintaining a satellite is much more significant. This presents fundamental challenges that motivate my team to look forward to work every day.”

This is a modified version of a story published by The Lead South Australia under CC BY 4.0

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Andrey Armyagov

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Originally published here.

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