Apart from the direct benefits of development of technologies for an
optical communications link as described, there will clearly be side-benefits
for other science disciplines. Although such spinoffs are difficult to
predict and quantify, certain areas seem particularly likely to benefit.
The Australian Centre for Astrobiology (ACA), based at Macquarie
University was established last year and is an affiliate member of the
NASA Astrobiology Institute. A major focus of the ACA research program is
to study the planets Mars and Venus. ACA is currently involved in ground
based observations of the atmosphere of Venus, a collaboration with
scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Vikki Meadows and David
Crisp). These observations use the IR windows in the Venus atmosphere
(first discovered by David Allen using the Anglo-Australian Telescope) to
probe the structure and composition of the Venus atmosphere at a range of
levels including the lower atmosphere, the sulphuric acid cloud regions,
and the airglow emission from the upper atmosphere. The success of these
ground based observations is influencing the design of the next generation
of spacecraft to explore Venus which will be able to perform similar
studies at much higher spatial resolutions.
The ACA is also planning ground based observations of Mars using IR
spectroscopy for the very favourable opposition of 2003. Adaptive optics
will be used to obtain IR spectral mapping with 16km spatial
resolution. These observations complement planned spacecraft studies from
Mars Express (ESA) and Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (NASA) which will do
similar studies from orbit at higher spatial resolution but lower spectral
resolution. The aim of these studies is to use the IR spectrum to
determine the surface mineral composition and in particular to look for
signs of water and to choose sites for future missions which will search
for past or present life. For these purposes the Reconnaisance Orbiter
will be able to carry out spectral mapping with resolutions as small as
The ground-based observations will complement the ACA's current program of using
IR spectroscopy to map ancient hydrothermal systems on Earth, in
preparation for searching for such systems on Mars. These systems are
prime targets in the search for life on Mars.
The current data rate limitations of interplanetary radio communication
severely limits the fraction of the planet surface that can be mapped at
these high spatial resolution at either Venus or Mars. Optical
communication systems could enable future space missions to perform much
more extensive studies of this type.
In astronomy, existing applications for photonics technologies include AO,
MCAO, LIGO, Square Kilometre Array, laser ranging, etc. The AAO is also keen
to explore linkages with the commercial sector since the world-wide investment
in optics and photonics outstrips almost all other technologies. In our push
to solve the space communications problem (and spin-off enabling technologies
for astronomical instrumentation), the consortium anticipates the potential
for income from IP exploited by the commercial partners.
Participation in this proposed Centre of Excellence gains the AAO a
valuable foothold in space technology, adding credibility to involvement
in any future opportunities in space-based astronomical projects as well
as capitalising on an international reputation for excellence in telescope
Australia has world class expertise in remote sensing. These technologies
are dominant in current and planned planetary exploration missions.
Airborne Research Australia was formed through the MNRF programme in 1996.
It capitalised on the international reputation of Jorg Hacker (Flinders
University) for developing and operating compact and effective airborne
platforms for atmospheric research. ARA now operates a fleet of four
unique research aircraft and would be well positioned to contribute to
instrument package development for the proposed airborne Mars exploration
The Australian National University is presently working with DSTO in
collaboration with NASA and DARPA on research into biorobotic vision.
The application is for autonomous vehicles, to be used as airborne rovers
for planetary exploration. A simulated planetary exploration mission
is planned at a "Mars analog site" in Northern Canada in 2004. Many
of the underlying technologies for the mission have been demonstrated
including optical flow for terrain following, stabilization using cheap
optical sensors and compassing using sun position and the polarization
pattern in the sky.