The University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra has secured $1.8 million in funding to improve the tracking of space debris and to develop artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities for managing satellite constellations and bolster their cybersecurity.

The funding for the two research initiatives has been granted from the SmartSat CRC ($1.1 million) and the ACT Government ($700,000).

UNSW Canberra is partnering with Infinity Avionics and Nominal Systems to develop capabilities in Space-Based Space Surveillance (SBSS), which will improve the ability of both defence and commercial space operators to detect and observe objects in space to navigate their own satellites and other space equipment through the increasing amount of debris and objects in Low Earth Orbit.

The project will look at ways to better capture higher quality images of fast-moving objects in space, allowing for quicker identification and more rapid responses should there be a risk of collision – something that up until now has been difficult to achieve.

The second project to have received funding will develop improved capability in cybersecurity and AI for space systems.

UNSW Canberra Space Associate Professor Andrew Lambert said the research project will make satellites more secure against cyber threats.

“We’ll be developing onboard AI systems so that spacecraft can be ever vigilant and more effective at detecting and countering cyberattacks,” Assoc Prof Lambert said.

The project will also lead to satellites being able to operate with less human intervention and utilize AI more intensively to operate independently.

“This research will see AI enable satellites to become more and more autonomous and able to work singularly and in groups together,” Assoc Prof Lambert said.

“The same holds true for protecting themselves. This project will help develop a means for satellites and other spacecraft to implement self-protection against cyber threats with very little human intervention.”

UNSW Canberra Space Acting Director Prof Ed Kruzins said the funding from SmartSat CRC and the ACT Government was important in establishing both Australia and the ACT as a key players in the global space industry.

“The funding announced for this research is important because operating in an extreme environment like space is complex and challenging, artificial intelligence is a key to making this a simpler and less risky task,” Prof Kruzins said.

“These projects put the ACT in the box seat for the next generation of space activities and UNSW Canberra Space is really excited about its role in the sector and being a central player in the ACT’s growing space industry.”