Australian Space Discovery Centre Excursion
To inspire and bring context to their Science as a Human Endeavour task, the Stage 1 Physics class went on an excursion to Lot Fourteen to visit the Australian Space Discovery Centre on the ground floor of the Australian Space Agency building. The Agency was founded in 2018 to unify and advance space-related science, services, exploration, travel and commercial opportunities for Australia and provide sustainable access to space for all mankind. We were extremely lucky to be able to speak with the Flight Manager in Mission Control, Tom, about what is involved in his job.
Tom and his team track and manage satellites and space debris for specific customers and the world in general. At the end of April last year, there were 7389 artificial satellites in space; this year alone 1400 satellites have been launched so far (by the end of September). Over 2000 of these are in Low Earth Orbit, travelling at speeds between 28000km/hr (or 7.8km/s). This makes it extremely tricky navigating satellites (for imaging, communications etc), as collisions between a satellite and another satellite or debris from broken satellites, rockets etc, could be catastrophic.
Once an object is in motion, it will continue to stay in that same motion until acted upon by another force (Newton's Law of Inertia), but given the lack of atmosphere in space, there is next to no friction slowing a satellite down. Once it collides with another object, while it might shatter and break apart, the parts will then continue to move with the same net force and momentum that the original objects had before the collision (Conservation of Momentum). This could create a chain reaction as the pieces continuously collide with other pieces, knocking out and destroying all of the satellites in Low Earth Orbit (and disrupting all of our communication!!!). It is Tom and his team's job (along with other Mission Control offices around the world) to make sure that this does not happen.
After we had this introduction to the space industry, we were given the opportunity to interact with the displays in the Space Discovery Centre. There were a number of really interesting and engaging displays that allowed you to investigate the effects that size and shape have on drag force (for objects re-entering Earth's atmosphere) or how satellite relay stations work to send communication signals around the world.
Some of the students operated a model of Perseverance (the newest Mars Rover), drilling and collecting samples on the surface of Mars. There was also a thought-provoking display that collected data from participants around the ethics surrounding space exploration; for example, "do you think it is ok for countries to extract and use water/resources on a planet that has alien life forms?"
The excursion to the Australian Space Discovery Centre was really interesting; it showed us how important this emerging industry is for Australia. Visiting the Centre is free and it is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday, 10 am to 4 pm - you just need to make sure that you book first.