It has been 50 years since Australia sent its first satellite into orbit. Steven Impey explores the possibilities an Australian space agency could present the industry.
In the not too distant future, the results from an extensive review of Australia’s civil space industry will give a clearer picture to how the country’s first sovereign space agency will take shape.
Arthur Sinodinos, minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, announced in July government plans to assess the potential across Australia, which has become known globally for its capabilities for Earth observation and communications.
By mid-September, panel leader Dr Megan Clark had completed her first rounds of consultation – speaking with roughly 400 members of the space community, and follows submissions from 200 parties interested in contributing to a united space authority in Australia.
On Monday, the Turnbull Government confirmed it will create a national space agency to ensure the growth of the Australian space industry in the global supply chain.
“We have received a great deal of interest following the announcement of this expert review group and we have gained a snapshot of the nation very quickly,” Clark told Manufacturers’ Monthly, in her first interview on the study.
“During the process, we have interacted with more than 60 start-up companies as well as those established, and larger, international players – and what we have found is that there is a lot more going on than we first thought, particularly in manufacturing,” she said.
Lifting the industry
A final report of the panel’s findings won’t be published until next March, when the nine-person group officially completes its inquiry into one of the country’s fastest growing sectors.
On the international stage, the Australian Government’s space expenditure (A$26.3 million) has previously been tiny compared to the amounts available to NASA in the US, Russia’s Roscosmos, and the European Space Agency (ESA), which all boast multi-billion dollar budgets.
Comparably, all the major space agencies, including NASA, contribute less than one per cent of their respective nations’ gross domestic products (GDP), according to a global space review this year.
For instance, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), which was founded in 1989, makes up around 0.3 per cent of its GDP despite almost doubling in size since the turn of new millennium.
For that reason, Canada is considered a domestic standard that Australia could seek to emulate when evaluating its own presence in the international space industry
“Australia has a very long history of using data from space,” Clark continued. “We have always been good at Earth observation and, interestingly enough, people have been telling me that this is possibly due to the fact that Australia doesn’t have its own native satellite system.
“If you look at the highest growth sectors we have in Australia – such as medical technology and around gene therapy (8-9 per cent) – our background in space research is one of the largest growing sectors in comparison.”
Take into account aboriginal theology, and these shores have been home to stargazers long before Australia launched its first satellite into space in 1967.
In November, Defence Science and Technology (DST) will mark the 50th anniversary of the event with the launch of its Buccaneer Cube satellite – developed in partnership with the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Canberra – in the last of three “Cubesat” missions this year.
The launch will follow two additional miniature satellites – including US-owned Biarri Point – that transported GPS technology developed by UNSW Sydney to the International Space Station (ISS), where they were eventually sent into a 12-month orbit of the Earth in May.
Dr David Lingard, DST’s team leader for small satellite experimentation, said that, by working with the US, the mission has been an opportunity for Australia to leverage skills from the international community.
“Effectively, with the Biarri mission, we have taken a GPS unit developed in Australia and shown that it can perform while in orbit,” Lingard said.
“One of the major game-changers in Australia around the late-1990s was the advent of miniature satellites and the standards that were later developed, making it much easier to interface with ‘Cubesats’ in launch vehicles.
“With the ability to develop and launch small satellites into orbit, it means there are many more [contributors] who are now able to experiment with satellites in the Earth’s orbit than before.”
The defence industry is playing a significant role in the growth of the space sector.
“One of the key objectives in research and development (R&D) in the space industry is to provide evidence to the government on what technology to buy,” said Nick Stacy, a research leader for DST.
“A second is to develop future technology that can help create innovation for the defence industry.”
With a well-trained understanding of the GPS technology used on the Biarri “Cubesat”, the Australian military can use them as “targets” to test how well its ground-based systems for tracking space objects are working.
“Positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) is key for modern systems, underlining the importance of the GPS technology in Biarri,” Stacy added.
Exploiting spatial technology
Australia is well placed to leverage existing strengths and investments in space-related activities around the world, according to a report published by Defence SA, South Australia’s lead government defence agency.
The paper, Societal and Economic Benefits of a Dedicated National Space Agency for Australia, acknowledges areas of priority for a “more organised and co-ordinated space strategy” in Australia, insisting that there are few countries better placed for the exploitation of spatial technology.
It also states that, although Australia excels by gathering data from Earth observation satellites (EOS) to manage issues – including weather and climate, emergency response, national security, agricultural and transport – the nation is among the lowest investors in publicly funded space-related R&D.
As one of the most dependent nations on other countries’ space data, the report does suggest, however, that a significant majority of Australian companies see space R&D capabilities as an integral part of their commercial activities and success.
Having reviewed the paper, Michael Davis, chairman for the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA), explained why a national space agency could be the launch pad for growth.
“Some of our members have global ambitions, which will include the design, development and launch of constellations of ‘nanosats’ that provide global coverage,” he said.
“One of the proposed roles of a national space agency would be to ensure the growth and co-ordination of our industrial activities, and to ensure that national companies can benefit from intergovernmental relationships with the larger international space progams.”
From rocket propulsion to building components for hypersonic engines in collaboration with the US Air Force, Clark reinforces the fact that Australia is already making strides in the space industry, albeit doesn’t accurately understand its own scope.
“We have quickly realised it will be important that this review does not only look at the strategy for developing the future of the Australian space industry,” Clark said.
“But also the nature of what is already happening across Australia because, even with the players that we have met, they didn’t necessarily know what was happening elsewhere in the country.”
Manufacturing on Mars
From the Mars Curiosity Rover to SpaceX plans to send humans to the red planet, Australia has had a hand in the journey.
Developed using Siemens’ design and simulation software, the Curiosity was also one of three Mars rovers that Sydney-based manufacturer, Silanna Semiconductor, built components for.
In addition, testing for SpaceX re-usable rockets requires tracking technology from the University of Tasmania, during its launch and descent over Australian airspace.
“There is a considerable amount of work being done to position manufacturing in the space and defence industries, which usually go hand in hand,” said Andrew Brawley, Silanna’s vice president of manufacturing.
“Although we have had considerable influence in the US, we are also trying to broaden that opportunity here in Australia.”
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) operates two of Australia’s national radio-astronomy and space facilities, where its engineers explore the universe and are able to monitor activities on Earth using the same satellite technology that created WiFi.
They are the Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF) – the collective name for the country’s radio telescopes – and includes the radio-telescope in Parkes (roughly 350km west of Sydney) made famous for its role broadcasting the first Apollo moon landing in 1969 as well as operations at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC).
“The space industry has the potential to grow and I think a bipartisan approach is ideal,” said Dr Cathy Foley, science director and deputy director for manufacturing at CSIRO.
“In places like Victoria and South Australia – where car manufacturers have closed – you could find a place for another focus area in the industry, especially with a strong connection between the defence and space sectors.
“To drive new industry, you need to create new clusters and I imagine, around plans such as a new test base at Western Sydney Airport, there is an opportunity for substantial integration to push the boundaries in Australia.”
In recent years, the space sector in Australia has seen more than 35 new start-up companies created while universities have established new space-related research.
“However, Australia is still missing those medium-sized businesses, which will benefit an economy that can build on its own defence and space industry,” Foley continued.
“Space seems to ignite a passion in people and, no matter who you are, the majority of people want to know more about what is happening in space.
“When you look up at the night sky and see the stars, it is really quite phenomenal. If you look for long enough, you might even see a satellite.”
The next frontier
The questions now are whether Australia has the capacity to perform on the same playing field as other space nations and whether a space agency can open new doorways for its industrial workforce to the universe.
“We haven’t finished our review yet and, when we get the chance to give an update in March, it will not only look to understand our strengths [in the space industry] but also where the gaps are,” said Clark, the former head of CSIRO.
“But I can share a little bit about what we have been hearing from the industry. There is a requirement for more co-ordination from our domestic activities, to enable our companies to participate in the value chain, internationally.
“Australia does have capabilities in this area that we need to grow. We have identified skills including optics, hypersonic and radar communications as areas that we could develop into global leadership.”