Titomic technology aids University of Melbourne and the Italian Space Agency deliver Australia’s first scientific satellite in decades

Australia has marked its historic return to space exploration by successfully launching into orbit its first scientific satellite in over two decades.

The SpIRIT nanosatellite, a landmark project, emerged from a collaboration between the University of Melbourne and the Italian Space Agency, with a consortium of pioneering Australian SME partners and support from the Australian Space Agency. Titomic, an innovative additive manufacturing company based in Melbourne, was instrumental in this historic achievement with its groundbreaking thermal radiator design, a critical component of the satellite.

The SpIRIT (Space Industry – Responsive – Intelligent – Thermal) nano-satellite is an Australia-Italy mission supported in Australia by the Australian Space Agency’s International Space Investment – Expand Capability scheme.

“The team utilised Titomic’s state-of-the-art TKF 1000 additive manufacturing unit to develop high-efficiency radiator panels that are crucial for the satellite’s operation,” said Herbert Koeck, Managing Director of Titomic.

“SpIRIT’s journey into space is not just a technological triumph. It’s also a significant step in scientific discovery,” Koeck added.

SpIRIT is designed to fly in low Earth orbit for two years in a Sun-synchronous polar orbit, where the satellite travels from north to south over the poles and is tuned so it always faces the sun at a similar angle. After the launch, the team will spend about four months testing and commissioning the nanosatellite in the extreme conditions of space before scientific operations can begin.

The nanosatellite will then transition to a full operational phase to investigate the mysteries of the cosmos through international scientific cooperation, and to measure the long-term performance of Australian-made space technology.

SpIRIT aims to grow Australian space industry capabilities through the development of an innovative nano-satellite that will break new ground in high-performance autonomous operations, communications, propulsion and thermal management. SpIRIT will also be the first made-in-Australia spacecraft to host a foreign space agency’s scientific instrument as its main payload, showcasing the competitiveness of Australia’s space industry, and growing international cooperation in astronomy and space science with the Italian Space Agency.

The SpIRIT design is based on a standard format (6U CubeSat) with ∼11.5kg mass and linear dimensions of approximately 30×20×10cm when stowed in the launch dispenser, which will stretch to almost one meter once in orbit due to deployable structures.

Titomic’s contribution features a bespoke bi-metallic radiator design, cold-sprayed in pure copper and coated with mirror tape on one side. This design maximises thermal efficiency, enabling the satellite to host heat-sensitive instruments that are typically reserved for larger satellites.

“Titomic has had a longstanding relationship with University of Melbourne which dates back quite a few years,” said Ben Andrews, Titomic’s Global Marketing Manager, “and we’ve been researching radiation shielding and heat radiators for a range of clients within this space [pun intended], also automotive, and defence sectors, so the technology application or parallel applications have been in development for 18-24 months.”

The radiator’s unique bird-shaped spray pattern – generated by a sophisticated computer algorithm – allows the SpIRIT to efficiently reject heat, enhancing its thermal performance ratio.

“That pattern was optimised by SpIRIT,” said Khin Thar, one of Titomic’s Manufacturing Engineers. “They analysed which areas of the satellite emits the most heat on their simulation flights using AI. So they have optimised that data and come up with that shape. The University of Melbourne then handed it over to us to do the thermal management coating.”

“There’s not really many other technologies that can combine copper onto aluminium,” continued Andrews. “We can build the heat exchanges directly onto the satellite body without having to re-engineer the body itself to incorporate a separate system.”

“When one metal powder feedstock is accelerated to supersonic speeds, the metal particles plastically deform, and they lock together to make a mechanical bond. The parts don’t exceed a hundred degrees centigrade. So there’s no risk of oxidation that you might see in some other large-scale 3D printing processes like wire arc additive manufacturing.”

The TKF1000 3D printer is very small and compact compared to other printers. It’s very easy to use,” according to Khin Thar. “The very best thing about this TKF1000 is its dual powder feeder. You have the option of putting two powders through this, not for this application and there are several applications where we do that. You can also do blended materials in a cold spray, you can optimise one side of the material.”

AMT magazine spoke with Professor Michele Trenti, Director of the Melbourne Space Lab and SpIRIT’s Principal Investigator more about the Italian Space Agency’s space instrument on SpIRIT.

“The HERMES instrument on board SpIRIT aims to detect gamma and x-ray flashes emitted by massive rotating stars collapsing into black holes or by collisions between very compact stars made almost completely of pure neutrons,” explained Trenti. “Based on a novel compact design of just 1U (cube of 10cm in each side), the instrument achieves high sensitivity between 3keV and 2MeV (x to gamma rays) and combines a Silicon Drift Detector (SDD) and scintillator crystals, with an optical light filter to prevent noise from sunlight. The X-rays are detected directly as they interact with the SDD, while the gamma rays interact with the crystals and produce optical light that is captured by the SDD. The instrument has a field of view of about half the sky, and the position of the transient burst is localised in the sky by cross-correlating photon arrival time using a constellation of nanosatellites. SpIRIT is one of the seven elements of the HERMES Scientific Pathfinder constellation, and the first to have reached orbit.”

University of Melbourne

The University of Melbourne developed four payloads and subsystems on SpIRIT: an Instrument Control Unit (called Payload Management System – PMS in short), a payload thermal management system (TheMIS), an edge computing and multi-camera system (Loris) and a low-latency communication system (Mercury).

The PMS is managing power and communication to all payloads, to facilitate integration of instruments with a commercial off-the-shelf platform. One feature of PMS is the inclusion of a mini-UPS to provide up to about one minute of uninterrupted emergency power to the HERMES instrument in case of a sudden cut-off of platform power. The UPS concept is based on supercapacitors and guarantees enough time to issue commands to place the instrument in a safe mode status.

TheMIS is a world-leading system for precision active cooling on a very compact form factor, and it includes a stirling cycle cooler capable of achieving cryogenic temperatures combined with deployable thermal radiators.

Loris is based on an NVIDIA Jetson Nano GPU, with University of Melbourne proprietary thermal management solutions suitable for efficient use in space. The GPU is controlling a multi-camera system, including a selfie stick camera that will be deployed with the solar panels and can process images on board with AI algorithms.

The Mercury subsystem includes both a redundant GPS for precision position and timing acquisition to support HERMES and an Iridium duplex user terminal for low latency telecommanding of the spacecraft and prompt transmission of event detections from HERMES.

The satellite’s primary mission while in space is to search for gamma rays – the elusive phenomenon created when stars collide or die. To achieve that, SpIRIT is equipped with solar panels, thermal radiators, cameras, guidance systems, an electric propulsion thruster, and computers.

After completing its two-year mission, SpIRIT will return to Earth and burn up on re-entry, concluding a historic chapter in Australia’s space exploration history.

Titomic’s involvement in this project not only showcases its expertise in advanced manufacturing technologies; it also positions the company as a key player in the burgeoning space industry. This successful launch paves the way for future collaborations and innovations in space technology.