After a hiatus, Australia is once again looking to be involved in space, with benefits for manufacturers on ground and in orbit. Connor Pearce reports.
July 21, this year, marked 50 years since Neil Armstrong uttered his famous line as he stepped on the moon – relayed to the world through radars located near Canberra. The remaining two-hour broadcast was shared to the rest of humanity via the Parkes telescope in western NSW.
In the intervening half a century, Australia’s participation in the space economy was limited in its growth since this initial milestone. The nation’s contribution to space activities has been largely limited to the processing of data collected by satellites built and launched by other nations, according to Roger Franzen, a member of Engineer’s Australia’s National Committee on Space Engineering, who has been active in the space industry for over 30 years.
“We’ve been an extraordinarily accomplished nation for processing other people’s data for our needs without generating our own data and putting that learning back into the assets that are orbiting the earth,” Franzen told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
Professor Andrew Dempster, at UNSW’s School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, has a similar outlook to Franzen. He noted that although Australia’s processing of the data is exceptional, the country’s commitment to space has not progressed beyond this point.
“Australia had always been very strong in the downstream sector, which is processing of the remote sensor data,” highlighted Dempster. “The Bureau of Meteorology, [for example], are very good at what they do, but I’ve always said the space industry must have upstream layouts. In other words, you’ve got to have things in space.” Recently however, Australia has once again turned its eye towards the skies, with the intention of placing an Australian- made and launched satellite among the many devices that now support life and progress on earth from orbit.
The new space race
In 2017, the first concerted efforts were made in this sector by Dempster and his team at UNSW’s Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research.
They launched one of three CubeSats, along with teams from the University of Sydney, the Australian National University and the University of South Australia. Weighing just 1.3kg and roughly the size of a shoebox, this new type of satellite opened up the possibility of Australia getting into space.
“They were the first Australian built satellites to be built in 15 years,” recalled Dempster. “So, that was a bit of a game changer because it meant that although the rest of the world had already cottoned on to this, it was now obvious in Australia that universities and other people with not a lot of money could get access to space.”
While these advances were being made in universities, governments and private enterprises around Australia were starting to take note. In response to this efflorescence, in 2017 Senator Simon Birmingham – representing then Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Arthur Sinodinos – announced that the Federal government would found and fund the Australian Space Agency, to an audience of global space experts at the International Astronautical Congress. Coalescing the disparate Australian space sector around one agency represented a shift from practices of the past, according to Dempster.
“This time around is the first time when it’s looked quite serious and that there is a groundswell of growth within the sector that justifies confidence that it’s going to keep going,” said Dempster.
In this respect, Australia’s space sector has made some in-roads. In 2016, the Expert Reference Group found that Australia’s space industry was worth almost $4 billion. Initially, the funding for the Australian Space Agency totalled $47.7 million. While this may seem small compared to the budgets of other agencies such as NASA, which has over $20b to spend, the Agency is operating under a new model, as deputy head of the Australian Space Agency, Anthony Murfett, highlighted.
“With the rapid transformation that we’ve seen in the space sector, it’s moved from the realm of government and to where we’re seeing small, medium and large businesses engaging and creating their own opportunities, it means the role of government is changing to that of a partner and facilitator.” said Murfett.
In 2018, the Australian Space Agency estimated that 10,000 Australians were employed in the space sector. Just as Dempster and the tertiary sector were able to get involved due to the miniaturisation of satellites and the reduced cost of launching them with private launchers competing with government-funded agencies, so too has the wider industrial sector turned their attention to space.
“You need to have space ports, rocket launchers, satellite builders, satellite component builders, mission designers, mission controllers, ground signalling controllers – all of these different services – and miraculously there are multiple entities in all of those sectors [in Australia],” noted Dempster.
Murfett likened operating in the space industry to working in the aviation or maritime sectors. He cited cabinetry makers who supply to the naval industry could adapt to supporting the building of space vehicles. Franzen concurs with this assessment of the industry.
“The space industry is like any other peak manufacturing entity. It is like the car industry in that there’s a massive pyramid of suppliers underneath the peak integrators. So, to have a space industry, a similar pyramid of suppliers is needed,” said Franzen.
In contributing to those agencies or enterprises, manufacturers who work in adjacent industries could adapt their processes to supply to space projects. Lloyd Damp, chief executive of Southern Launch, a company that is working towards operating a launch facility at the southern tip of the Eyre Peninsula, highlights that the new space industry, sometimes called Space 2.0, will enable a broad swathe of enterprises to be involved in the industry.
“The key thing with the next generation of space investment or space utilisation is all around using translatable technologies into space,” said Damp. “If there’s a set of valves that we can borrow from the oil and gas industry, for example, and if they can get signed off by the appropriate authorities, then that’s a good example of a product that new space would try and make use of.”
Murfett already sees areas of competitive advantage for Australian companies in areas such as robotics and automation, quantum mechanics and optical communications.
In addition, metal 3D printing, advanced composite materials, and the area of artificial intelligence (AI) have existing direct applications, both terrestrially and in orbit.
More broadly, Murfett noted that, “space actually touches and transforms all parts of the economy, which opens up additional opportunities for applying manufacturing technologies”.
Preparing for launch
Franzen knows from experience the need for a wide network of contributors to any space mission. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Franzen was involved with the Endeavour space telescope, which flew in the Discovery and Endeavour space shuttles. The $5m contract produced two dustbin-sized canisters and involved 115 sub-contractors.
“Many of those subcontractors had to be convinced they were able to do what we needed,” recalled Franzen. “It was an exercise in looking at what we needed, going to the marketplace to see who was manufacturing that or something similar, and saying to them, ‘This is what you do here. Can you stretch that a little bit further to do this?’”
Gilmour Space Technologies, a rocket manufacturer based in Queensland, is developing low-cost hybrid rockets and is similarly reliant upon the broader manufacturing sector, according to CEO Adam Gilmour.
“We’re taking the view that instead of trying to make everything ourselves, we’re going to try and reach out to as many as we can in the local industry. We figured that we should be going to companies that have a deep adjacent experience and then say, ‘Here’s what we know about how it works in a rocket. How do we then make what you know into what we need?’”
Gilmour has turned to local manufacturers partly due to the need for short-turnaround times. While specialised components such as avionics and bearings for payload vehicle had to be sourced overseas, Gilmour has sought out local manufacturers to reduce the time that their components spend in transit and the time it takes to get materials through customs.
Drawing on a local filament winding shop for the construction of the nose cone, Gilmour has also adapted carbon fibre tubes that are produced for the mining and chemical industries for its space activities.
“We have been using a lot of the local computer numerical control (CNC) shops to do a lot of the manufacturing of the separate components,” added Gilmour.
Overall, he is enthused about the capability of the local manufacturing sector to supply Australia’s space sector as it grows.
“I’ve been surprised in the last six months at the talent and capability of adjacent industries to the space industry and the willingness of these industries to come and work with the space industry and I think it bodes well for the future,” said Gilmour.
At the north-eastern tip of Arnhem Land, at the end of the Gove Peninsula, Equatorial Launch Australia is building Australia’s first space-port, termed the Arnhem Space Centre. Carley Scott, CEO of Equatorial Launch Australia, highlighted the construction of a space port, which by nature has to be located away from major urban centres, requires the development of advanced manufacturing capabilities, not only for power generation,
but the on-site 3D printing of the specific and precise parts needed for construction and maintenance.
Equatorial Launch Australia recently gained national prominence when it announced that NASA would launch low-orbit vehicles from its site by 2020. In preparing for this eventuality, Equatorial Launch Australia has turned to manufacturers across Australia.
“We talk to the vehicle manufacturers in Queensland and South Australia has a number of really strong payload manufacturers as well,” said Scott.
Looking at the capabilities of the Australian economy as a whole, Murfett and the Australian Space Agency are seeking to link manufacturers to space enterprises.
“What we are now doing is identifying exactly where the capabilities are across Australia and how we can support the growth of the sector,” said Murfett.
Already, international aerospace corporations are said to be looking to invest in Australia to support their supply chains. According to Murfett, the Agency has engaged with a range of companies including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Airbus and others looking to support the space sector in Australia. There are also a range of SMEs looking to invest in space activities.
Reaching altitudes through shifting attitudes
For all this enthusiasm, those involved in the space industry recognise that making the leap into space requires a shift for manufacturing from terrestrial to orbital operations. While in-orbit manufacturing is a possibility, getting it right first time is essential for space.
“Once we get there, we’ve got to make sure it’s right. One of the differences you see from terrestrial to space [manufacturing] is that we need to make sure that what goes to space not just works, but it works well. This is because repair and retrieving the objects becomes very hard,” said Murfett.
Franzen noted that not only are the logistics difficult, but space is the next step from the harshest environments on earth.
“Space is a vacuum, it has high temperatures, it has low temperatures, it has radiation and PVC plastic, for example, something that we use routinely on earth for many, many applications will evaporate totally in the vacuum of space,” said Franzen.
For Scott, from a launch perspective this means that working towards space missions requires a step-by-step process, beginning with the low orbit rockets before moving to the larger vehicles, a measured process that is not always highlighted in breathless discussions of the potential for space.
“It is important to say, ‘Well, how do we develop this industry?’ and how do we take the steps along that quite exciting journey instead of just ‘We’ll be at the top end of it in no time,’” said Scott.
Frazen sees a shift in attitudes also needing to take place. Ensuring that each component or instrument sent into space works as intended requires a focus on professionalism in the industry.
“We seem to pride ourselves on being able to build a jet fighter out of a Meccano set in the back shed, [but] that is not what the rest of the world expects to see. They expect to see white rooms, lab coats, clean processes.”
By 2030, the Australian Space Agency forecasts that the Australian space sector will support 30,000 jobs and be worth a total of $12b. Along the way, many benefits are expected to spill out to other segments of industry. Already, Gilmour Space Technologies are developing new propulsion systems and seeing innovations in insulation materials, fuels and support structures for the rockets that they are developing.
These kinds of unexpected benefits are part of the motivation for why the Australian government is investing in space and promoting the sector’s development, as Murfett highlighted.
“One of the reasons the government has invested in the space sector is in recognition that space itself is going to be a large part of the economy going forward and will impact on all our lives. Importantly, it can both spin in technologies from other parts of the economy and you can get applications working in space coming back out into other parts of the economy,” said Murfett, who gave the example of advances in fire retardant materials that were developed via their application in space.
Scott sees investment in space leading to the further development of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), as tools and technologies are developed, particularly for use within the agricultural and mining sectors that utilise more readily available commercial satellite data.
“Once you have satellites in play, they are impacting the industries that are already strong industries in Australia, and they’re looking to evolve, using GPS tracking, for example,” said Scott.
Gilmour said, however, it would be presumptuous to define exactly what benefits space will have to the wider economy, because he feels there are potential applications that we are not even aware of.
“The attitude to space is now a little bit now like the internet around 2000, where there was technology available and people just had to think of the application for it. Back then, no one had figured out Facebook or Twitter yet,” said Gilmour.
Scott agrees, and highlights that the dynamism of the Australian manufacturing sector means that describing future applications now is not possible.
“That’s the exciting thing for manufacturers in Australia. It doesn’t mean that I need to give an answer to manufacturers now, because they are so innovative, and they know their customers so well. If they have an understanding of how these sorts of technologies are developing in the space sector, they’ll come up with new innovations that can potentially work well in Australia and overseas,” said Scott.
Observers have watched the Australian space sector go through fits and starts, as government offices were set up, closed or amalgamated within other departments. Today, the energy and support behind the Australian Space Agency and the wider ecosystem is cause for optimism, as Dempster, who has been working to get support for an Australian space sector off the ground for 30 years, reflects.
“There’s no question this is the best time that I can remember to work in space in Australia,” said Dempster.