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Satellites - Australia's Australis Oscar-5


From the earliest days of "wireless", radio amateurs or "hams" have been noted for their passion for experimentation. Over the years, many major contributions to the science of radio and electronics have been made by amateurs, and even today, with millions of people working in the various communications fields, occasionally the way ahead is the result of private investigation by amateurs.

The World's first satellite, Sputnik, was launched by the Soviet Union in October 1957. December 1961 saw Oscar-1, the first amateur satellite launched. It was also a "space beacon" but transmitted some data. (OSCAR - Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio). Oscar-2 followed in June 1962. The memorable success of Telstar-1 in July 1962 which provided the first live television exchange between Europe and America, attracted the attention and minds of many amateur radio experimenters who dreamt of their own communications satellite. Oscar-3 launched in March 1965 provided the first taste of amateur space communications.

Oscar-4 followed in December 1965. It had a cross band repeater of limited success, but significantly, it provided the first satellite based exchange between the USA and USSR! Up until now, all amateur satellites were of American origin.

New Thinking

A quote: "During 1965, the Melbourne University Astronautical Society began to investigate the problems of satellite construction. With the co-operation of Oscar, Project Australis was formed. Australis, like Oscar, aims to build communications satellites for use by amateur operators in all parts of the world. In contrast to its American counterpart, Australis has no local background of satellite technology. This situation contributed to the difficulty in initiating the project. Financial limitations have also restricted progress. The result is that the first satellite is a relatively simple test vehicle, carrying two telemetry transmitters, a command system and magnetic attitude control system. All electrical power is supplied by batteries which are expected to have an operating lifetime of about two months."

Extract, Australis Oscar A Users Guide, September 1967, p5

The story continues

On 1 June 1967, Australia's first home grown satellite, designed, constructed and subjected to as many tests as possible here, was taken on board a Boeing 707 in Melbourne by three university students, bound for the USA to deliver the satellite for an imminent launch. The availability of that launch evaporated.

And unfortunately, for all of those pioneering university students (some of whom were also amateurs) together with other radio amateurs associated with the Australis project, another Australian satellite "beat them into orbit". WRESAT-1, designed and built by the Weapons Research Establishment, was launched on 29 November 1967 from the Woomera Rocket Range in South Australia. It made use of a spare launch vehicle remaining from earlier joint rocket tests. This was certainly an achievement, but deep, deep, down, many argue that it was not as much of an achievement as Australis!

Australis Oscar 5

About 10 years after it was conceived, Australis finally "flew" on 23 January 1970, when, with the assistance of AMSAT, NASA provided a "piggy-back" launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was the first amateur satellite launched by NASA. Following the launch, Australis-Oscar-A became officially named Oscar 5. It is still known as AO-5 by many.

AO-5 was undoubtedly the first Australian designed and built satellite package! AO-5 was the product of a keen group of enthusiasts from the University of Melbourne together with a number of radio amateurs, commercial suppliers and the WIA which through its international and local networks provided some assistance, finance, and guidance.
AO-5 was a great success, although most Australians, and much of Academia remain unaware of this largely exemplary and unrecognised1960s Australian pioneering space work!

After 50 years (2020) Australis Oscar-5 is still in orbit, no longer operative, but according to Dr. Alice Gorman, a renowned Australian Space Archaeologist, it should remain there as part of Australia's space heritage. By leaving it orbiting in space, AO-5 has more value to Australia than it being recovered and sitting on a museum shelf somewhere on Earth.

Block Diagram


In October 2019, two of the original Australis team, Richard and Owen spoke at the AMSAT 50th Anniversary Symposium in Washington DC. Incredibly, AMSAT has matured into a formidable organisation assisting today's amateur and university satellite builders, and providing amateur radio gear to the International Space Station. It has even been asked by NASA and ESA to provide amateur radio equipment for Gateway, the proposed lunar orbiter that is to be the stepping stone for manned lunar and Mars expeditions! Not bad for a group whose hobby is amateur radio and satellites.

Further information:

A BOOK on AO-5 by Dr. Owen Mace, one of the original Melbourne University students involved. "Australis Oscar 5" published by ATF Press Adelaide, ISBN: 9781925309805.

REFERENCES. Amateur Radio magazine, "50 years old and still circulating", November 2018 (Volume 86, Number 2, 2018). It contains many other references to AO-5.

WEB SITE. The AO-5 web site: Link contains a lot of interesting historical information and links to other web sites.

Page Last Updated: Friday 10 January 2020 at 13:19 hours


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