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Space, cubed: the Curtin graduates behind Binar-1

19/10/21. By Daniel Jauk. 10 min read.

“This is Binar-1 and we are ready. Let’s go!” – Ben Hartig (front left) okays Binar-1’s deployment. Image: Caitlin Reynolds.

For many Western Australians, working in the space industry has always seemed out of reach. But now, with the release of the Binar-1 satellite from the International Space Station, the industry has finally come to our doorstep.

Measuring just 10cm3 and weighing one kilogram, Binar-1 is a CubeSat, a next-generation satellite substantially lighter and cheaper to launch than a traditional satellite, which can weigh up to seven tonnes. They offer the perfect entry point for WA research candidates to enter the space industry, with the hope that this will extend to schools who wish to collaborate with Curtin in the future.

We spoke to Curtin engineering graduates and PhD candidates Ben Hartig, Fergus Downey and Stuart Buchan to learn about how they reached this point in their career.

Binar-1 (rectangular object) was released into low Earth orbit from the International Space Station on 6 October, 17:20 AWST.

Project manager Ben Hartig

Ben Hartig (BEng Mechatronic Engineering, 2015), 36, was a little older than most of his peers when he began his Curtin undergraduate course. A few years earlier, Ben was a veteran traveller and a successful chef who had worked in Australia, internationally and at sea on medical aid missions.

“I felt like I was peaking, so I started thinking about what else would challenge me. I’ve always loved maths, science and making things, and been fascinated by my granddad, who’s a draughtsman. It just became the clear path forward,” says Ben.

The Binar team just after the deployment of the Binar-1 satellite.

After graduating, Ben worked on the Desert Fireball Network, which tracks fallen meteorites using cameras strategically positioned around Australia. When the network expanded to track humanmade satellites, Ben used his logistics skills from working in kitchens to organise the network, making him the clear front-runner for Curtin’s then-infant space program.

Ben’s biggest challenge was preparing the paperwork to ensure the satellite was ready for deployment. He handled hundreds of pages filled with meticulously researched graphs, tables and diagrams, for each stage of development.

“That level of scrutiny was difficult because even if you’re certain that your spacecraft will work, you now need to prove to a technical expert that it’s worth sending to space.”

When it came to naming the program, Ben broke Western tradition of looking towards the Greek pantheon and instead looked towards WA’s history, suggesting ‘Binar’, the Nyungar word for ‘fireball’, after consulting with the South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council.

“Being in Whadjuk Nyungar country, it felt obvious,” he says.

Hardware engineer Fergus Downey

Responsible for Binar-1’s hardware, Fergus Downey (BEng Mechatronic Engineering, 2019) recalls the moment he was presented with a list of projects to work on for his honours year and saw the opportunity to help build the satellite.

“I put up my hand and attended a meeting with my tutor. He said, ‘We’ve got six students and we’ll put each of you on a main system of a satellite’ – just like that. Here I am three years later and I’m now working on my PhD,” says Fergus.

Fergus Downey (left), pictured holding a CubeSat, has been instrumental in compressing the Binar-1 satellite.

Fergus, who grew up “under the stars” at Lake Grace, 300 kilometres east of Perth, designed all mechanical facets of Binar-1, including the batteries and solar panel power system. One of his key tasks was to limit the amount of wasted space in the satellite, which he solved by centralising the printed circuit board (PCB).

“Typically, most CubeSat manufacturers have a PCB for each subsystem, which means you’re left with a small amount of space for your payload and you’re wasting money.

“We’ve compressed some of those layers into a single layer and placed the PCB at the top, which means a lot more space for the scientific equipment and we can do a lot more testing on our CubeSat in the future.”

The 25-year-old is hopeful that his work on Binar-1 will help cement WA’s place among the current wave of planetary science and exploration.

“I want to feel like WA and Australia can be part of going back to the Moon or to Mars, and I think it’s really important we’re building those skills here.”

Software developer Stuart Buchan

Underpinning Binar-1 is the software engineered by Stuart Buchan (BEng Mechatronic Engineering, 2018). Stuart says he was in the “right place at the right time” after his honours project, which involved miniaturising the radiometric cameras for the Desert Fireball Network, put him in contact with members of the program.

“I was finishing up my work on the cameras and said I’d be interested in doing a PhD on the satellite. Luckily, they accepted,” says Stuart.

Stuart’s chief role has been analysing how to safely reuse the software between CubeSats with different payloads, since Binar’s ultimate objective is to launch six more CubeSats – Binar-2 to Binar-7 – next year, as well as the Binar Prospector satellite to the Moon in 2025.

He has also been responsible for the qualifications testing required by Binar’s partner, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, by placing the satellite in a vacuum chamber and on a vibration table to see how well it would perform under distressing conditions.

“We’re looking at a long-lasting program that can rapidly produce different spacecraft, which means we need to ensure that the underlying software is easy to maintain and that the CubeSat can survive conditions in space, as well as vibrations from the launch rocket.”

Stuart Buchan (centre) and members of the team testing the satellite in a vacuum chamber.

Stuart, who credits his passion for space to being captivated by the news of the Voyager 1 probe leaving the Solar System in 2012, wants to ensure that future generations of Western Australians have the chance to pursue a career in the space industry.

Members of the Binar Program have already been involved in several local outreach initiatives, including a new exhibit in WA Museum Boola Bardip, which provides information about Binar-1 and invites students to imagine their place in space science and exploration.

“From the conferences I’ve been to, it sounds like space is going to be a very lucrative industry in Australia in the next two decades. There’s now no reason why students in our schools can’t end up in this field.”

This is just the beginning… The ‘Big Binar’ exhibit at WA Museum Boola Bardip has already attracted hundreds of letters from budding scientists.


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Binar Space Program

Binar Space Program

Keep up to date with the latest Binar news and watch satellite launches on the official Binar Space Program website.

The Future of Binar-1 and Space Science

The Future of Binar-1 and Space Science

Don’t have time to read? Listen to Ben Hartig explain the goals of Binar-1 in this special episode of The Future Of podcast.

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