On July 1 history was made with the official launch of the Australian Space Agency, a major milestone in the nation’s space history.
The establishment of the space agency came after many years of work by dedicated industry members. A group of de facto leaders within the space industry in Australia, and expats working within the international space industry, worked tirelessly to show government the opportunity space presents for Australia.
The role of the Australian Space Agency is not to be the equivalent of a NASA or an ESA (European Space Agency). Our agency is much more practical and modern, and it has been formed with an eye on the increasingly commercial nature of the international space industry.
There are only a couple of national agencies that have the funding to conduct large frontier missions that send infrastructure to other terrestrial bodies, and the Australian Space Agency is not one of them. Instead it will aim to help local businesses gain a greater share of the US$345 billion global space market.
The government’s ambitions for the agency are high. By 2030, the government hopes to have tripled the size of the local space industry to be worth around $10-12 billion, with a ‘B’. And, of course, to have created jobs and economic growth.
“We have an extraordinary opportunity to grow the size of our domestic space industry by up to $12 billion by 2030,” said Minister for Jobs and Innovation, Michaelia Cash.
The industry growth targets are ambitious, especially considering the modest seed investment the most recent 2018-19 budget has allocated to the agency: $26 million over four years, and a further $15 million to fund partnerships with international space agencies.
This means that the agency will most definitely not be conducting space missions, but will play a supportive role to industry, and importantly, will ensure Australia has a seat and a voice at the table during international space conversations.
This initial funding will enable the agency to support local businesses in the global space sector, coordinate domestic activities, engage with stakeholders, and help build the country’s international networks. So it is an exciting time for Australian space businesses of all sizes which have been slogging it on their own for decades.
In all, the Australian Government has committed to investing $300 million in space. Beyond the agency’s ongoing operational funding, no less than $225 million, will go towards upgrading and improving GNSS precise positioning technology. The impacts of this will reach many Australians as it takes GNSS positioning from metres to centimetres and allows for automation across agriculture, mining and even enabling safe autonomous vehicles on roads in the future.
Meanwhile a further $36.9 million will go towards an earth observation (EO) platform called Digital Earth Australia, which will collate global satellite images of Australia, enabling public usage of this powerful data, supporting current earth observation businesses and capabilities and enabling new ideas and opportunities for the development of new capabilities.
The space agency’s first priorities are to establish a charter and to develop an overarching strategy and investment plan for Australia’s space industry. At the helm of the agency is Dr Megan Clark as its interim head. Minister Cash said Dr Clark’s experience and respect – domestically and internationally – are great assets for the new agency.
The agency’s initial priorities include:
» Communications technologies, services and ground stations.
» Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and debris monitoring.
» Positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) infrastructure.
» Earth Observation (EO) services.
» Research and development.
» Remote asset management.
» Developing a strategy to position
Australia as an international leader in specialised space capabilities.
Dr Clark led an Expert Reference Group (ERG) over the last year to survey existing capabilities, gaps and needs of the local space industry. That included a national tour speaking with everyone from Defence through to startups to collect this information to inform the government on the creation of the agency.
As a former CEO of CSIRO, she is more than qualified for the job with the experience and respect - domestically and internationally.
“We need to get back in the game,” Dr Clark told the ABC’s 7.30 program in August.
“We were right there at the very beginning in the ’60s, we were one of the first nations into space.”
One of the government’s aims in getting back in the space game is the creation of high tech space industry jobs. Minister Cash said the formation of the agency was a great milestone for Australia, not just for our progress in science, but for the economic opportunities it presents.
“This means up to 20,000 high-level jobs created across Australia.”
That is an extraordinary figure. But where are all these skilled and knowledgeable people going to come from? Australia’s industry is already facing a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) crisis, with employers routinely citing that they are struggling to recruit applicants with appropriate STEM skills and that they are having to rely on recruiting people from overseas.
Today’s school students are just not aware of the opportunities opening up to them. Many kids dream of becoming an astronaut, and while that may be off the cards for most, a job with a space focus is most definitely in reach. But a major communication and education effort is needed to make young Australians aware of the agency and the increasing career opportunities in STEM and space. That will be vital to ensure a long term, sustainable Australian space industry.
Australia already has a proud history in space.
During the Cold War we had one of the world’s busiest space ports, Woomera in central South Australia. From here we launched Britain’s sounding rockets into space.
‘No other industry can inspire nations quite like space.’
DR MEGAN CLARK
Australia also continues to play a critical role in space communications. Due to our unique geographical positioning on the globe, we are the ideal ‘ear’ for everyone needing to listen out for communications. We received Armstrong’s first communication back from the moon, we also received the first communications back to Earth from the Curiosity rover once it had landed on Mars.
Our meteorologists have been using satellite weather detection capabilities since the early 1960s even if it was only in 1970 that our first weather satellite was launched into space with the help of NASA.
The Expert Reference Group found that our current space industry employs 10,000 people already and generates around $3.9 billion annually.
The nation’s strongest space capability lies in earth observation and other space data processing. We’re becoming increasingly sophisticated in how we use satellite imagery to inform our society, from agriculture, to climate change impact monitoring, through services strategy during times of emergencies like bushfires.
Some of our most significant work is in space operations, especially within astronomy. As we have long been the world’s ‘ear’ listening to space, we have developed fantastic ground station networks and infrastructure, with multiple entities being able to communicate, track and monitor satellites in orbit. Our astronomy capability is advanced and world class, as evidenced by the Square Kilometre Array being built in Western Australia.
“Some may argue that Australia may be late to the party, but we are entering a time where the space sector is moving from the realm of government to the commercial world,” Dr Clark said in a message to mark the launch of the Australian Space Agency.
“Our agency will be one of the most industry-focused space agencies in the world, engaged internationally and demonstrating Australia can be a leader and a responsible global citizen, drawing on our home-grown Aussie ingenuity.
“No other industry can inspire nations quite like space, where human ambition can set its sights on interplanetary missions, colonisation beyond Earth and the opportunity of finding new life. We can dream this big because of the space-based technologies that have connected the world in unprecedented ways, and in the coming decades Australia has the opportunity to become a global leader in pushing Earth’s links with space even further.” ■