Joelene Buntain, Flying Officer, Surveillance of Space team

Watch this space with Joelene Buntain, Flying Officer, Surveillance of Space team

It’s not surprising that Joelene is working on the Surveillance of Space team. “I’ve always had a fascination with space and what’s up there,” she says. “When I was little, out in the outback at night, I used to lay on the trampoline with my binoculars and look at the moon and stars.”

Shrinking satellites
But she’s not using binoculars any more - Joelene’s team is responsible for acquiring (or buying) super high-tech satellites for the Air Force that can see and check what’s going on in outer space. There have been great leaps in satellite technology in recent years. “We use cube satellites which are about the size of a loaf of bread, whereas traditional satellites are the size of a car,” Joelene explains. “These cube satellites have all of the same technology inside, if not more, but because they’re smaller, they’re cheaper, so we can get more of them.” Of course “cheaper” is relative … cube satellites cost between $1-1.5 million compared to the car-sized varieties which cost over $100 million, so you might need to raid a few piggy banks to be able to buy one for yourself!

Why do we need satellites?
Most of us are totally unaware of how much we rely on these satellites to go about our everyday lives. “Without satellites we wouldn’t have the internet,” says Joelene. A world without the internet?? EEK!! What else? “Our aircraft, ships and submarines run off navigation which comes from satellites. We also use them to withdraw money from ATMs, predict weather patterns so that we can warn people about extreme weather like cyclones, and they can be used to check what other countries are doing, to ensure the safety of Australians.” So basically life without satellites, would be like living on another planet!

Space junk
Another thing satellites keep track of is space debris (bits and pieces that have broken off satellites and are floating around in space). In the space environment, which is very volatile with things moving at thousands of kilometres a minute, space junk can have disastrous effects. “Even a speck of paint that could have come off a spacecraft can create massive destruction,” Joelene explains. 

The space community has yet to come up with a solution. “There have been ideas like putting out a giant net, but that would bring everything in, including satellites that are actually working,” she says. It’s these kinds of problems that the next generation of space-enthusiasts may be able to solve. Do you have any ideas about how we could litter-pick in space? 

The future of space
While the size of satellites may be shrinking, Australia’s investment in space is doing quite the opposite. “Space is an expanding area of the Air Force,” says Joelene. “It’s a great time to join the space industry in the military or in the civilian world.”

Joelene studied a lot of maths and science subjects at high school and encourages anyone keen on a career in space to do the same. “Having a PhD in astrophysics has opened up a lot of avenues for me,” she says. She will soon be moving to a new team that is more “hands on” with using this technology to look at what is happening in space.

Feet firmly on the ground
Does Joelene ever dream of going up into space? “Not really,” she admits.“It’s cold and volatile up there! As a pilot, I like being up in the air, but not in space.” She thinks a little longer: “Of course if they sent me up on a mission, I wouldn’t say no.”

What’s the coolest thing you have learnt about space?
The Cassini spacecraft discovered that Enceladus (one of Saturn’s moons) has an atmosphere that is 91% water vapour. It also found traces of methane which is a possible indication of life.

It’s fascinating that there is potential for life on this moon all the way out as far as Saturn! But before you pack your bags to move to Enceladus, there are a few issues to overcome: it’s very cold (like -198 ̊C cold!) and it’s very bright as most of the surface is covered in ice. Can you come up with any ideas to overcome these obstacles?