A new force in space

On July 1, the Australian Space Agency officially began its work. Manufacturers’ Monthly got in touch with Dr Megan Clark, the head of the agency, to speak about the prospects for the Australian space industry.

Almost exactly a year after the government announced plans to review the nation’s space industry capability, the Australian Space Agency kicked off in July– working from its headquarters at the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science in Canberra.

In its response to the review of Australia’s space industry capability, the federal government announced in May that it will invest $41 million to establish the Australian Space Agency, and another $260 million to develop advanced core satellite infrastructure and technologies in Australia.

Dr Megan Clark, who had led the expert review group, was appointed by the government to lead the agency for its establishment and first year of operation.

The Australian Space Agency has an ambitious goal ahead of it: to triple the size of Australia’s space industry to $10-12 billion per year by 2030, from the estimated $3.94 billion in the 2015–2016 financial year.

Read: Increasing Australia’s share in the global space industry

The Agency has also set out to increase Australia’s share in the global space sector, which is estimated to be worth around US$345 billion ($460 billion), and growing at nearly 10 per cent per year.

Clark told Manufacturers’ Monthly that the agency will focus in its first 12 months of operation on connecting the domestic industry to the international space sector and engaging with the states and territories to develop the national civil space industry strategy.

“Our absolute purpose is to transform and grow the Australian space industry and make sure that the space industry sector is lifting the broader economy.

“To do that, we will be consulting with the states and territories before putting forward a proposal to the government regarding the best strategic location for the agency,” she said.

Areas of competitive advantage

Australia’s location in the Southern Hemisphere offers advantages for locating satellite ground stations. Australia also has excellent capabilities in ground systems, software, and applications, which creates opportunities to expand its role in the global space economy.

In its review of the space capabilities, the expert review panel identified six key areas where Australia can “leapfrog” using its competitive advantages.

The first key area is in communications technologies and services, which also includes the ground station segment – for connection from space to earth.

“Many countries would not highlight the ground segment as a strategic advantage, but for Australia it totally made sense. We cover around 12 per cent of the earth’s rotation, we look into the solar system and into the galaxy, and we are an island where only about 30 per cent of the land mass is covered by mobile phone coverage. This means that for the remaining 70 per cent, the space would be important,” Clark said.

The second key area of advantage for Australia is Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and debris monitoring.

Read: The Australian Space Agency lifts off

“In Australia, we already have the C-band radar in the Harold E. Holt facility. This year we will also have the Space Surveillance Telescope, which is a laser-based optical system and that will be for the higher geostationary orbit,” Clark said.

“Australia has world-class facilities and expertise in SSA that could be used to support commercial activity, and add significant value to the global space economy.

“We see space surveillance and debris monitoring as an opportunity for Australia to play its part as a good global citizen,” Clark said.

Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) is the third area where Clark believes Australia can leapfrog.

These refer to the ability to accurately and precisely determine one’s location, current and desired position and precise time from a standard (Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC), anywhere in the world.

The first recommendation put forth by the expert review panel to the government was to enhance the PNT infrastructure, highlighting its role in enhancing other aspects of the broader economy including agriculture, transport, fisheries, emergency services, mining and oil and gas, and national security.

“Our network of global navigation satellite tracking infrastructure that supports high- accuracy positioning is not globally competitive. In timing, we currently have a five-minute accuracy – and in some places, a 10-minute accuracy – which is behind many of the developed countries,” Clark said.

She saw it as a positive sign that the Budget 2018 has allocated funding towards development of the satellite infrastructure and technologies, including better Global Positioning System (GPS).

“The development in technology could also allow us to narrow the positioning precision down to three centimetres. This would be helpful for a variety of purposes, including autonomous vehicles, automation network, robotics, and things that we cannot even imagine now – like how we help the visually impaired,” Clark said.

The fourth strategic area identified in the review was advanced earth observation (EO) services.

Read: Mission: Space

Clark explained that since Australia did not have a sovereign EO satellite in the space, it had to capitalise on the available satellite data, rather than on data from a single set of satellite missions.

“While other countries were focusing on information that was coming from their satellites, Australia became very good at putting together all of the data that was available,” she said.

The Budget 2018 has funded the Digital Earth Australia platform, from Geoscience Australia, to be commercialised and to allow that platform to be exported as a global standard to other countries.

The fifth area of competitive advantage, Clark said, is to leverage Australia’s strength in research and development in areas such as quantum communications and technologies; astronomy and planetary science; space and remote medicine; and advanced antenna and sensor technology.

The sixth area of competitive advantage for Australia is remote asset management. “We are world class in this area,” Clark said.

“Australia has been using remote asset management mechanisms to control autonomous trucks at mine sites in Western Australia as well as to control offshore oil rigs from control rooms located thousands of kilometres away,” she said.

While the expert review panel highlighted these as the six key areas where Australia has competitive advantages, Clark said other areas could also be identified as the agency carries out its assessment of the sector.

Brining space into broader economy

An important role that the Australian Space Agency hopes to play is to improve the mutual relationship between the space sector and the broader economy.

“We see this as really important that we can bring the technology that has been developed for space to be used across our broader economy on earth and then the things that we do on earth, we can share with the space industry,” Clark said.

To demonstrate some benefits of the space sector on other economic sectors, Clark cited the example of an existing partnership between Woodside Australia and NASA.

“NASA is developing Robonauts – which are humanoid robots to be able to perform functions on the international space station. Our oil and gas industry also identified the need to deploy robots to carry out exactly the same functions on offshore oil rigs. So, Woodside and NASA are currently working in partnership to build that.

“That absolutely exemplifies an area where the Australian oil and gas industry is working with the space industry for mutual benefits,” she said.

She also referred to examples of works being done by space start-ups and SMEs in Australia as concrete examples of how the space industry can contribute to the broader economy.

“In the area of the Internet of Things (IoT), we have companies such as Myriota and Fleet Space Technologies, whose work assists with automation of other industries such as agriculture, mining and oil and gas. Because of our remote nature in Australia, collecting data from sensors in far-reaching areas is not possible through the mobile phone network. We have emerging capabilities in the area of constellations of miniaturised satellites, which will be used for IoT and communications applications,” she explained.

Another critical role for the Agency will be to develop agreements with key countries to enable increased Australian industry participation in joint missions and projects.

“One of the key roles of the Agency is to provide that one door and one voice internationally, which we have been missing,” Clark said.

So far, Clark said, the response from international space agencies has been “overwhelming.”

“Since we announced the establishment of the agency, we have received great interest from agencies around the world wanting to partner with our new space agency. It’s easy to see that they were all waiting for us to have this agency,” she said.