The ups and downs of Perth space startups
It’s a classic WA startup tale — Conrad Pires and Stuart McAndrew met at the ESA deep space tracking station in New Norcia. Stuart was building a prototype satellite at home, while Conrad had a business degree and was looking for a change.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Reaching for the sky
Stuart and Conrad’s Picosat is seriously tiny, measuring just 5 centimetres a side. And because getting stuff into space is expensive, the smaller you can make your satellite, the bigger your edge can be.
“So we’ve got this little satellite, we’re going to put it into space, and it’ll beam home pictures of Australia on the amateur radio band to a receiver that we’re building, and we’ll be able to look at pictures of Australia from space,” says Conrad.
The pair are currently working on their first prototype using off-the-shelf components, but the long-term plan is more ambitious. Picosat Systems wants to be a one-stop shop for businesses looking for satellites on the cheap.
“Putting stuff into space is quite challenging. Not only do you need to build that satellite, you need to test it, get it certified by the people who own the rocket, make sure you’ve got launch insurance and get government sign-off.”
“We’d take care of all of that for you. Then you have the solution, and you don’t need to worry about all the bits and pieces in between.”
Picosat reckons WA is a great place to be when it comes to space. We’ve got the ground stations and the skills. But perhaps more importantly, we’ve got the customers. There’s a huge number of businesses in WA that rely on satellites to do their job.
“As far as we know, we’re the first small satellite solutions provider in Western Australia,” Conrad says, “so that’s kind of cool!”
Getting down to business
If you spin this around, you’ll find another WA space startup trying to solve the opposite problem: bringing things from space back down to Earth.
“I had this scientific background and design knowledge, and I’ve always been a space nut,” says Mike Le Page, founder of Exodus Space Systems.
Inspired by films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mike set his sights on trying to recreate the iconic spinning space station.
“Exodus is a solution to the problems I saw with people trying to build spin gravity. We’re trying to build much smaller craft that also spin, but we’re going to use that spin motion to address a different problem—space debris.”
Debris tends to stay in space because there’s no air resistance to slow it down. While there are several projects out there that are trying to clean up space, Exodus has a plan to turn that space trash into Earth cash.
“We clear out specific regions of space where there are a lot of satellites operating, and if you’ve got a satellite up there, there’s value in that.”
Exodus’s spinning satellite will deploy a small amount of gas in the regions they’re paid to patrol, almost like tiny pockets of atmosphere. These pockets of atmosphere cause any debris caught in their bubble to slow down and fall out of orbit.
“We think of it as pre-emptive satellite insurance,” says Mike.
And WA is the perfect place to do it—we’re kind of experts in the whole debris-tracking thing.
“Space is no longer something you’ve got to go overseas to get involved in,” Mike says. “We’re right where we want to be.”