By Adam Gilmour
From farming and mining, to the Stars
Australia may be an island to itself with its remote geography and predominantly ‘Earth’-based agriculture and mining economy; but we are very much reliant on space science and technology.
Among other things, satellites provide our farmers with Earth observation data for weather and crop monitoring; they provide our mining industry with geological mapping and imagery; our transport and logistics sectors with position and navigation services; and our citizens with global communications technologies.
Yet Australia is one of the only developed countries in the world that lacks a national space agency, and ours is the lowest space budget among the top 20 economies.
It’s not about keeping up with the Joneses
This lack of focus and investment in space has led to a reliance on other nationsto build, launch and maintain this critical infrastructure for us – arguably an unsound strategy in these changing political times.
What’s more, Australia continues to be sidelined in what is now a US$335 billion (A$441 billion) global space economy. Our share of it, according to a 2015 report on Australian space capabilities, was estimated at under 1%.
By contrast, other governments and companies around the world are setting their sights on new and potentially disruptive space technologies – from low-cost worldwide internet delivery, to asteroid mining and space-based solar power.
Recognising this, many of our world-class universities offer space-related courses. But without a dedicated space industry (and related jobs) for these graduates, more and more of our brightest minds will leave to pursue their dreams, or ‘settle’ on less dynamic industries.
Staying relevant in the 21st century
Last year, the Federal Government conducted a survey on how it could expand the local space industry. Many private companies and universities voiced their opinions, and industry bodies like the Space Industry Association of Australia provided white papers on the creation of a space agency.
We have yet to see the results of this exercise, but I truly believe that space is where Australia needs to be in order to stay relevant in the 21st century.
Thanks to recent technological advancements and the shift to commercial space activities, satellites have become smaller, lighter and a lot more capable than their 'old-tech' counterparts. Getting them up there may soon become easier and cheaper too, as new launch sites and small-launch vehicles become available.
The good news is that Australia is naturally well-positioned for the small/tiny satellite revolution that’s sweeping across the globe, with Woomera in South Australia being a great launch site for polar orbiting satellites, and the top end of the Northern Territory for equatorial launches.
Indeed, with cheap, dedicated, timely and reliable access to space, Australia’s space industry could be free to develop and test small satellite-related technology at lower cost, thus helping to strengthen their business case and competitiveness in the world market.
From user, to producer
As more and more startups venture into space-related research and development in Australia, a national space agency could play a vital role in providing the leadership and infrastructure needed to tap into these new growth opportunities.
To this end, I see Canada – with its comparable GDP and population size – as a good example for Australia. Their space agency spends an equivalent of A$680 million a year to support a A$3.4 billion space industry.
Unlike Australia, which a big user of satellite data supplied by third parties, Canada's space industry is focused more on original space technology. They specialise in a few niche markets, such as in-space Earth observation, space robotics, space vision systems, space exploration and research; they supply critical machinery to the International Space Station (ISS); and a number of their astronauts have ride-shared their way to a stint on the ISS.
It is this focus on niche technology streams that has worked well for many nations. For Australia, niche areas could include small satellite launch vehicles, small satellite components and systems, in-space propulsion systems, and communication relay technology. Indeed, a number of visionary Australian companies are already breaking new ground in these areas.
No need to sell the farm
So why haven’t we done it? In the past, when governments got involved in space, they got in 'big' (read billions of dollars). With today's technological advances, however, space need not be a billion dollar government program.
In 2006, NASA launched a Genesat 1 mission to study bacteria in Low Earth Orbit for just US$5 million, and a moon water observation mission called LCROSS for US$79 million in 2009. More recently, The Planetary Society privately funded two light sail technology demonstration satellites for under US$4 mio each, and India built and sent its orbiter all the way to Mars for just US$74 million.
Looking around, the average OECD government spend on space agencies or development is about 0.05% of GDP. For Australia, that would translate to about A$810 million a year.
That said, I believe we could jumpstart our space program with a much smaller annual budget of just $100 million.
Here’s what we could do with $100 million
We start with an internal staff and expense budget of $20 million a year. With that, we set up a space agency with a mandate that is not focused on internal R&D, but on collaboration with industry and universities.
A staff of 20-30 could provide assistance to Australian companies in setting up public/private programs similar to NASA’s, providing technology support for the collaboration with industry and academia on space technology projects, ensuring the availability of critical space assets (e.g. helping to sponsor or set up a space launch site and guaranteed launch provider in Australia), providing education resources, and acting as a liaison with the Defence department and other space agencies.
We would spend $50 million a year on public/private initiatives, $15 million a year on collaborative space technology work with other space agencies, and another $15 million a year over three years to develop a light launch vehicle commercial spaceport in the Northern Territory.
Public needs, private ambitions
Such public/private partnerships have already proven to be very successful in the US, with NASA (its National Aeronautics & Space Administration) actively supporting small, medium and even large companies in space technology development.
Take US-based SpaceX, for example, which received hundreds of millions of dollars from NASA contracts in their first five years of operation (and billions more in subsequent years). This trail-blazing company continues to make technological leaps for space travel and is at the forefront of global efforts to bring humans to Mars.
Closer to home, Rocket Lab from New Zealand received a sizeable grant from its government that has led to further rounds of significant venture capital funding.
Such intellectual and financial government support by the Australian government, to Australian companies that have achieved a minimum Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of 4, for example, would give them a fighting chance of surviving the well-recognised technology ‘valley of death’ (between TRL 4 and 7) and becoming players on the world stage.
Space is the future
Space is undoubtedly one of the hardest technical/engineering challenges that humanity has ever faced. It is an industry that needs fantastic minds to come together to define and solve what might seem to be insurmountable obstacles.
More than that, a space industry in Australia could conceivably be worth billions of dollars in diversified revenues related to actual space hardware and launch (not just buying data from other countries and re-selling it). It would give us more control over critical space assets, and provide a 'smart' alternative and sustainable future for thousands of Australians, including those being displaced by the declining car manufacturing industry.
To the stars.