Phil Bland – Director, Space Science and Technology Centre, Curtin University

Finding falling stars and safeguarding satellites 

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Phil Bland tracks meteorites to explore the origin and early evolution of the solar system, and develops systems that can track not only meteorites, but also satellites and space debris.

Previously from Imperial College in London, Phil came to Australia in 2012 and created the Desert Fireball Network.  This system of observatories in the Western Australian outback takes photographs of the night sky to find and track fireballs, allowing researchers to identify where meteorites land, and trace their orbits back to work out where they’ve come from.

As Director of Curtin’s Space Science and Technology Centre, Phil now works across a range of projects in space and planetary science, contributing to research teams that are finding and analysing meteorites, studying impact craters on Earth, the Moon and Mars, tracking objects in near-Earth orbit and contributing to space missions.

What drew him to science?

“I’ve always been into hiking and mountaineering,” says Phil. “So the landscape, the geology really fascinated me.  I wanted to go to university and learn more about geology.  And then in my final year at university I saw the research side of it – I really got ‘the bug’ for science when I experienced that feeling when you realise you’re discovering things that no-one knew before.”

Phil had also always had an interest in space and spaceflight, so he made the most of the opportunity to analyse meteorites in his first geological job.  That subsequently led to him pursuing a research career in planetary science, combining his original interests in both space and rocks.

Research with supercomputers

As the Desert Fireball Network developed, the need for large amounts of computer storage became apparent.  Phil explains: “We’ve got 50 cameras in Australia, and now even more world-wide.  Each night each camera takes around a thousand 45 megapixel images of the sky – so the images accumulate very fast.  Pawsey stores all of that for us, which now accounts for almost two petabytes of data.”

The processing power of supercomputers is also being used, with machine learning harnessed to automatically identify meteorite streaks and moving objects between the thousands of images in near real time.  Datasets of orbits for objects in our solar system can then be created, and run backwards through time to work out where meteorites originally came from.

Real world solutions

The Desert Fireball Network has been responsible for locating nine meteorites so far, and identifying their point of origin.  This is contributing to a geological ‘map’ of our solar system and increasing understanding of how our planetary system formed.

Based on the experience gained from the Desert Fireball Network, Phil’s team is using the same technologies, image analysis and data processing algorithms to track satellites in near-Earth orbit.  “There’s no equivalent to air traffic control for satellites,” explains Phil.  “Space is shared, with many countries sending up multiple satellites.  The guidelines for tracking and collision warning are not formalised between countries, and different countries use different datasets to map what is up there.”

If satellites collide, the cloud of debris generated is likely to cause even further impacts, creating a runaway collision event with the potential to destroy everything in low-Earth orbit.  This would profoundly disrupt global communications, navigation and Global Positioning Systems (GPS), weather forecasting and storm tracking, and take trillions of dollars and several years to restore.

Phil’s team, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, has shown that they can track orbiting objects as small as a shoebox, analysing the data to give positional details in real time.  The satellite tracking system they have built in Australia sees 6,000 square degrees of sky, tracks 1,000 objects and updates their positions every 10 seconds.  It’s a demonstration that could be extended to a global network capable of tracking the entire catalogue of satellites world-wide and updating their positions every few hours, making space traffic control a possibility.

And it developed from finding falling stars.

Phil Bland