Mission: Space

Australia is planning to increase its footprint in the global space industry, with the Budget 2018 setting aside funds to establish a national space agency.

This year’s Federal Budget dedicated $41 million over the next four years towards establishing a national space agency. The fund also includes a $15 million investment for Australians to take part in international space projects. In addition, the Government will spend $260 million to develop core satellite infrastructure and technologies.

What the Government is hoping to achieve through these investments is to help increase Australia’s share in the $430 billion global space economy, estimated at the time of drafting the space white paper in 2017 to be 0.8 per cent, to at least the equivalent of Australia 1.8 per cent share in the global economy.

The Space Industry Association of Australia had last year announced that the space sector in Australia produces $3-4 billion in revenue annually, only 8 per cent of which comes from exports.

Manufacturers’ Monthly spoke to Patrick Neumann, chief scientist for Neumann Space about the current state of the civil space industry and what the government’s new investment would mean to the sector.

Neumann recently delivered a speech on the current activities and future potential in the “nascent civil space industry” at National Manufacturing Week. He pointed out that to achieve that target, Australia needs to identify niche markets in the global stage in order to get a foothold.

“Space is global, so we need to look at global sectors. Australia does not have enough domestic demand to justify a large space industry, so we need to be able to sell on the global stage. Sectors such as Pay TV and electronic equipment are either highly monopolised or not our strong-points. There are smaller and newer sectors, however, that are more open. These are the areas we need to identify in order to increase our share in the global space economy,” he said.

MM: Tell us about your company and what you are currently working on.

PN: We at Neumann Space are commercialising the results of my PhD in plasma physics, which focuses on developing a plasma thruster for use in space.
While doing my PhD at the University of Sydney, some of the measurements I did indicated that plasma moved in excess of 23 km per second, under the conditions that I was measuring it. I thought wow, we could make a rocket motor out of that.

My PhD involved testing 11 different materials as fuels to see which ones worked best and under what conditions. It showed that under the right conditions, this device produced thrust more efficiently than any propulsion system in use in space today. Our rocket helps keep satellites in the correct orbit for longer, while needing less fuel; and also to allow satellites to transit from one orbit to another orbit using less fuel, so that you can launch less mass into orbit, creating great saving in rocket fuel cost.

MM: What have you achieved so far in terms of commercialisation?  
PN: Nothing yet, but we have been developing designs and working on solving the various problems that currently exist in our system. We are scheduled to launch our technology into space in 2020 and have our system tested outside of a space station as part of Airbus’s new Batrolomeo mission platform. We have received widespread attention from major international players, primarily from their engineers and supervisors, but until it is pre-tested in space, no one can be sure that it meets the requirements.

MM: What was the process you went through to get the deal with Airbus?

PN: We attended many conferences and met with people. In one of these conferences, we came across the person behind the Batrolomeo mission platform and found the platform to be perfect for us. In this platform, we pay Airbus and they give us the safety reviews and operational reviews that we need to comply with.

Assuming everything works out, then the payloads get taken to space on one of the regular supply missions and installed using a robotic arm. This way we can use electricity and communications via the space station resources. So it’s much simpler and more cost-efficient for us than having to build and launch our own small satellite.

MM: Do we currently have the technologies necessary to have our own space agency in Australia?

PN: Yes. Australia has all of the technologies, either currently in use or under development, to do its own space mission. There are groups working on launch sites and launch vehicles, so you can send things off to space. There are people working on the hardware, so that you actually have something to put into space. There are people working on the communications and ground stations, so you can get the data back. And there are other people working on what’s referred to as the support segment. These include testing infrastructure, mission assurance and the legal aspects. But most of these companies are currently fairly small; many of them in the start-up phase. They need collaboration
from manufacturers to develop their capabilities.

MM: What is your reaction to the new announcements by the government?

PN: I’m really happy with the announcement of the new space agency, because this way there will be a single point of contact to tie everything together, and to be the voice from the government saying: “These are the things we consider to be in the national interest.” One of the obvious outcomes of the budget announcement is refinements on the global positioning system (GPS) technology. So that autonomous navigations, especially for agriculture and logistics, can be done more efficiently and more cost-effectively.

Also the $260 million investment for innovative technology will help quite a lot. There are a number of Australian space companies that have raised a fair amount of venture capital finance and done small-scale proof of concept. They need to find clients in order to demonstrate that their business models work before they can raise additional funds.

An example is the South Australian company, Myriota, that is looking at direct-to- orbit satellites and Internet of Things (IoT) via satellites. They recently closed a $15 million funding round, including Boeing HorizonX, Boeing’s venture capital wing. One of their pilot projects was a very simple sensor to measure the amount of water in the water tanks for a large cattle grazing property in Kimberly region of Western Australia. The region being remote, it was not possible to do this using a 3G mobile phone network. A satellite phone would also be incredibly expensive. Myriota’s solution is a very simple communication device that communicates to a small satellite orbiting at around 600 km, that signal gets bounced between satellites and then down to the ground station. So the client could get information from the water tanks once or twice a day.

MM: So, does Australia’s geography adds to the importance of satellite technology for our country?
PN: Yes. Australia is the sixth largest country by land area. We have the third largest Exclusive Economic Zone after France and USA. This means we have approximately one-eighth of the earth’s surface area under our Exclusive Economic Zone, as prescribed by the United Nations Convention. We should keep an eye on those. It’s hardly possible using just ships and aircraft.

The earth observation mission helps farmers know what part of the field needs more fertiliser, or how much water is being taken out of the irrigation network, where and by whom. This is really difficult to do in a country the size of Australia.

Similarly, it helps fisheries and maritime tracking for illegal fishing, as well as monitoring krill blooms and plankton blooms in the Southern Ocean.