AAL 2022/23 Annual Report – Industry Engagement

AAL’s industry engagement program focuses on assisting astronomy departments to prioritise their research translation activities, and to encourage a systematic approach to the commercialisation of astronomy intellectual property.

Australia’s astronomy research groups are also encouraged to share their commercialisation or industry engagement success stories with AAL. These are intended to illustrate the range of commercial applications of astronomical research.

Industry Engagement highlights 

Aquamate water tanks for gamma-ray observatory

The need for specialised astronomy infrastructure can sometimes result in unexpected partnerships – and may open a new market for an Australian company worth approximately US$200-300 million.

In 2020, Dr Jose Bellido Caceres from the University of Adelaide approached AAL with an opportunity to support an Australian business supplying prototype water tanks to the Southern Widefield Gamma-ray Observatory (SWGO) – proposed to be built in South America.

Gamma-rays can’t be directly detected from the ground but their effect on matter can be observed – and a body of water creates an excellent viewing medium. To make the SWGO viable, the project team had to secure a large supply of bespoke water tanks lined with impermeable plastic membranes (or bladders). They found what they needed in Aquamate, an Australian business based in Adelaide.

After learning of the project, AAL worked with the Entrepreneur’s Programme (sponsored by the Department of Industry, Science and Resources) and the Department of Education’s NCRIS program to support Aquamate and the University of Adelaide with funding to build a series of prototypes. Since then, three prototype detectors have been delivered to candidate observatory sites in Mexico and Peru. 

Two further observatories (which may require up to 35,000 water tanks) are also seeking prototypes from Aquamate. One of these is a neutrino observatory involving scientists from Harvard University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while scientific teams from Germany have already purchased plastic bladders worth US$22K.

Gamma-rays are the most energetic form of light in the universe, existing at the complete opposite end of the electromagnetic spectrum to radio waves. They are produced by extreme objects and events, like pulsars and supernovas, or by the merger of two black holes.

The highest energy gamma-rays are difficult to detect directly, however we can observe them indirectly because of the way they interact with matter. Upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere, gamma-rays produce ‘showers’ of high-energy particles. These particles create a very faint blue flash which astronomers observe using highly sensitive detectors. It is easier to observe these flashes in bodies of water, hence the decision to use Aquamate’s water tanks for the SWGO.

As the blue flash is very faint, Aquamate needed to design the SWGO water tanks to be completely light-tight. Cleverly, Aquamate found ways to change their design, making sure the tanks (originally leak-proof) were now also 100% light-proof, allowing no other light source to pollute the detections. The materials were also designed to make transportation and assembly as easy as possible, as the shipping crates had to be hauled over mountains to reach remote observatory sites in South America and the tanks put together using only basic tools.

Throughout the course of the collaboration, Aquamate CEO Danny Di Iorio said he enjoyed working closely with Dr Bellido Caceres to understand these and many other scientific requirements. “Working with clever people to solve some complicated problems – after 20 years building water tanks, this has been a really different and interesting project for Aquamate. After more than 20 years of designing, manufacturing and installing water storage tanks, I never expected to be supplying infrastructure for a cutting-edge gamma-ray observatory in South America!” 

He also reflected that working with science is very different to working with industry. “In industry, the decision has already been made – a customer needs water tanks and we supply them. With science, it’s a different approach; you’re collaborating to come up with a technical, bespoke solution.”

For more information, see The University of Adelaide’s news story, Water tanks: windows to southern sky’s soul.

AAO and Advanced Navigation, Moon to Mars Initiative

As part of a Moon to Mars Initiative, Australian Astronomical Optics (AAO) at Macquarie University will build a new optical multi-beam laser collimator that will land on the moon.

The project is part of a collaboration between AAO and lead partner, Advanced Navigation, awarded a $5.2M Moon to Mars Initiative: Demonstrator Mission Grant by the Australian Space Agency. Advanced Navigation will deliver a sensor called LUNA (Laser measurement Unit for Navigational Aid) to US-based space systems company, Intuitive Machines, as part of NASA’s ongoing Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

Intuitive Machines will mount LUNA onboard its Nova-C lander. The LUNA sensor, using AAO’s focused multi-beam optical laser device (known as a collimator), will eventually allow a lander to safely touch down on the moon without any real-time assistance from mission control.

Project lead Advanced Navigation chose AAO to design and build the laser collimator for the LUNA device due to their proven expertise in the area of precision astronomical instrumentation. Due to the complex nature of the project, AAO will outsource some of its component manufacturing to local Australian industry partners.

AAO is a member of the Astralis Instrumentation Consortium (Astralis). Forming Australia’s dedicated, national optical astronomy instrumentation capability Astralis is funded by Department of Education’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) program via Astronomy Australia Limited (AAL).

“We are thrilled to be drawing on our expertise in the area of astronomical instrumentation and developing this essential component for future explorations of space.” Associate Professor Lee Spitler, Project lead for AAO.

Although NASA intends to eventually send humans back to the Moon, its first missions will be uncrewed. LUNA’s enhanced functionality and low size, weight, and power compared to alternative sensors makes it an attractive option for future missions.

During an autonomous landing on the lunar surface, mission controllers cannot make navigational adjustments in real-time due to the communications delay between Earth and the Moon.

This is where LUNA comes in. Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander will be fitted with Advanced Navigation’s sensor device, using AAO’s optical collimators to tighten the focus of four laser beams as they are bounced off the reflective lunar surface during final descent. These lasers will deliver instantaneous information about the landing site back to the craft, allowing it to make real-time adjustments to its trajectory and positioning – ensuring a successful touchdown on the surface of the Moon.

“We will be creating a series of four telescopes that will send out laser signals and detect the reflected laser light that bounces off the lunar surface,” explains AAO Associate Professor Lee Spitler. The AAO team will create this critical component for the landers from 2025-26, enabling exploration of unreached regions of the Moon and beyond to Mars.”

For more information, see AAO’s news story AAO technology is going to the Moon. This page provides a link to their industry partner and LUNA project lead, Advanced Navigation.

We are humbled the Australian Space Agency has awarded us a Demonstrator Mission Grant as it represents a pivotal milestone in the company’s trajectory, as we embark to be among the first Australian technologies to reach the Moon. Our work with AAO will enhance Australia’s sovereign space capabilities, further unlock the commercial Space economy, and ignite a new era of innovation as we push the boundaries of scientific discoveries and exploration on the Moon and beyond.

Xavier OrrCEO and co-founder, Advanced Navigation