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Space Trailblazer to enable development of freeform optics for Earth Observation

The University of South Australia (UniSA) with two Adelaide-based SMEs, VPG Innovation and SMR Australia, will mature and space-qualify a new optical manufacturing process and materials for space flight applications and demonstrate it in a camera that can utilise this revolutionary new manufacturing capability.

The work will be done though the iLAuNCH Trailblazer, headquartered at the University of Southern Queensland, though initial work began in 2021 under a Defence Innovation Partnership (DIP) grant.

An emerging optics technology called freeform optics is now possible due to the emergence of suitable additive manufacturing technologies, says iLAuNCH. Freeform optics, as their name implies, are free from any constraints of symmetry in their form and shape. Optical devices such as mirrors can now be designed and additively manufactured to take on complex shapes that can provide larger fields of view within smaller packaging sizes, all while being able to withstand the harsh environment of space.

Earth Observation satellites currently scan the Earth’s surface and typically the camera payloads need to be wide and gather light in strips, similar to an office paper scanner. Glass optics onboard satellites today are limited in their view by traditional manufacturing processes.

“This project demonstrates what iLAuNCH is all about, taking a 2021 DIP concept demonstrator that investigated the viability of Freeform Optical Components for small satellites, and moving it into production using Australian technology for real world applications,” said iLAuNCH Trailblazer Executive Director, Darin Lovett.

“Through iLAuNCH we are growing a trained workforce for space hardware, and in this case, bedding down new manufacturing techniques for these novel freeform mirrors for satellites,” added Lovett.

One of the important requirements in the development of freeform optics is the ability to take the additively manufactured part and process it to the point that a mirror finish can be developed. Traditional surface-finishing processes are unsuitable for freeform surfaces. Additionally, there is the challenge of achieving a stable, durable coating in the harsh low Earth orbit environment.

The Future Industries Institute at UniSA has pushed the boundaries of additive based manufacturing to develop a novel technology that is set to transform the way space missions are designed.

“We are developing an optical grade finish on additive material substrates for optical components for satellites,” said UniSA Senior Research Fellow, Dr Kamil Zuber. “We will also demonstrate a coating system for reflective optical components for space applications.”

The project partners, advanced manufacturer VPG Innovation and mirror and camera systems experts SMR Australia, have long experience in traditional and additive manufacturing, and product development for automotive and defence sectors.

The additive manufacturing, moulding and vacuum coating capabilities of the partners enable commercial production of the developed product.

The project will expand ISR capabilities for space satellites, and satellite platforms in general, through the prototyping and validation of space-grade materials and durable coatings for optical and structural satellite components using substrates made by polymer and metal additive manufacturing. In addition, the team will explore, validate and test existing and emerging space materials creating guidelines and standards for space materials for satellite components to aid the Australian space sector.

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