A New Horizon
Australia in the global space race
Inspired by the great prospects opening up before mankind as a result of man’s entry into outer space, … Preamble to the Declaration of Legal Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, 13 December 1963
From 1 July 2018 Australia will have its own national space agency, the ASA, with seed funding of $41 million in the first four years and further potential investment through a Space Industry Development Fund and major, national space-related projects on a quadrennial basis.1
Australia has been deeply involved in space research from the dawn of the space age, even before Sputnik 1 was launched, especially at the Weapons Research Establishment at Woomera.2
Australia has also previously had a space agency, the Australian Space Office (ASO), and a National Space Program (NSP), from 1987 to 1996.3
Current circumstances are fundamentally different to those 22 years ago when the ASO and NSP were terminated. There are strong reasons for optimism4 about the success of a new ASA and national strategy for civil space,5 not least of which is that the current resurgence of the Australian space industry is largely commercially-driven and by home-grown innovation and enterprise.
The Clark Report set a target of at least tripling the contribution of the Australian space industry to the
The current resurgence of the Australian space industry is largely commercially-driven and by home-grown innovation.
economy by 2030, to $12 billion, a compound annual growth rate of 8% over the period,6 which may seem ambitious, but which is modest compared to a compound annual growth rate for the global space economy of over 9.5% over a period of more than 15 years,7 and which would not necessarily bring Australia up to a proportionate share of the global space economy.8
As a publicly funded, governed and staffed organisation, though, the agency will need to represent the interests and prospects of the Australian population broadly and not just the commercial interests of Australian space enterprises, in spite of their great prospects.
This article examines the reasons why now is the right time to re-establish a national space program, previews some of the policy and legal challenges that an ASA must confront in balancing its priorities, and suggests some critical commercial and strategic opportunities for Australia, provided that Australia, through the ASA, is prepared to take on a proactive, global role in space law and policy to address the challenges.
1 Having a ‘horse' in the space race
The global space industry is estimated at around USD329 billion annually9 and is expected to grow to between USD1.1 trillion in 20 years10 and USD2.7 trillion in 30 years. The Australian space industry is estimated to generate around AUD4 billion per annum12 and consequently represents only a small portion of the international market.
The growth in the space industry reflects the development in technology in recent years. Small satellites are now manufactured bespoke, or assembled from commoditised or modularised components.13 They offer increasingly customised and flexible capability, either independently, or as nodes within a constellation of satellites. 14
Satellites are smaller, more redundant, less risky investments, opening the way for participation in space activities by a broader range of States and nongovernmental entities.
While there has been an emphasis on commercialisation of space products and services for decades in the United States,15 insatiable consumer-led demand for local and global connectivity has also been a driver in this change,16 particularly as people of developing nations more fully participate in all aspects of economic, social, political and cultural life.17 Those drivers are unlikely to dissipate in the near future, but will be accentuated by the prospects of off-earth mining and extra-territorial colonisation in the long term, and scientific research, particularly to support those prospects, in the medium term.
All of this is stimulating opportunities to tailor innovative niche solutions to emerging market sub-segments that can be serviced by small, increasingly capable, satellites. Examples include small satellites enabling internetconnected devices,18 remote sensing
by satellites operating cooperatively in formation, scientific research (which is, after all, the genesis of small satellites), as well as military applications.19
Apart from the satellites themselves, fragmentation is occurring in respect of the launch, ground, link and user segments of the space industry to provide, for example, small rockets20 and mobile satellite ground control stations21 responding to consumer-led demand with more agility. This represents additional, significant commercial opportunities.
Those opportunities are not limited to the space industry itself. The experience in the UK, for example, has been that in addition to the growth in direct jobs that comes with industry growth, there are approximately two spin-off jobs for every space job.22 For Australia, the Clark
Report conservatively estimates growth of up to 20,000 high-value jobs as the industry triples.23
1.1 Australia can contribute a lot
Australia can and should contribute a larger share to the global space economy and develop sovereign, strategic space capability. We have relevant infrastructure, expertise, education, research, reputation and credibility across a growing range of segments and sub-segments in the industry. We have among the most innovative companies and people, turning their efforts to creating valued niches of our own.24
We can already manufacture our own satellites from scratch,25 prepare them for launch,26 and operate them in orbit.27 We are already a global leader in developing user applications of space infrastructure. Although we cannot do it now, we will soon be able to launch on Australian rockets,28 from Australian launch facilities. 29
We are also global leaders in operating in remote and inhospitable environments (analogues to the Moon and other celestial bodies) and in the use of satellite technology to enable such operations. Typically, this is where mining companies operate. The very big and capable Australian mining industry has been exploring the theoretical aspects of off-earth mining for several years now.30
1.2 Strategic advantages
So what's been holding Australia back? Australia was among the original space pioneers, with a vibrant space industry focused on Woomera in the 1960s and 70s.31 Since then, our international partners left Woomera, but provided us with ongoing access to the benefits of their space research and enterprise (especially the US) in return for access to our facilities and geography (especially remote areas) and there have been a series of false starts in the establishment of spaceports in Australia between 1986 and 1998, reflecting the very high start-up costs of the space industry at the time. 32
This has compounded a perception that whatever space capability Australia needed, it should get from allies,33 and any Australian aspirations for its own space program were more likely to be met with a cringe and a wry choke, than with enthusiasm.
But Australia has a ‘sovereign margin' of space-related needs that cannot or will not be met by allies in all circumstances,34 entry costs are falling, and Australia has very credible and competent space-related capabilities. The Australian Defence Force, like other modern military forces, have begun to acknowledge their heavy dependence on space infrastructure, and also that the use of space is likely to be contested between belligerents in, and even before, a conflict (terrestrial and otherwise).35
Thus, not only is it the right time to foster a deeper and broader domestic space industry for commercial reasons, but there is also an urgent strategic imperative to do so.
The Australian Defence Force, like other modern military forces, have begun to acknowledge their heavy dependence on space infrastructure, and also that the use of space is likely to be contested between belligerents in, and even before, a conflict.
1.3 A local space industry needs support
Notwithstanding the very vibrant industry that Australia has had in user applications of space infrastructure belonging to allies and others, the very title of the extant (but outdated) national space policy – the ‘Satellite Utilisation Policy' released in 201336 – reflected self-consciousness about Australian aspirations to develop any space infrastructure of its own.
Since 2013, it has primarily been the more than 60 home-grown start-ups,
rather than established companies, that have stepped up to develop launch sites, launch vehicles, satellite ground control stations, satellite manufacturing and space tracking capabilities. 37
Even though these are vibrant, innovative and among the most admired companies in the global space industry,38 they are still rela
tively fledgling enterprises working in disparate, niche areas. Within their niches, they can be globally competitive, but to foster the industry as a whole, to showcase what we can do collectively, to identify – and even create – comprehensive opportunities, Australia needs an entity centrally organised, collectively funded, and mandated to do what the individual enterprises cannot do independently.
In the past, leading space researchers and associations have been strong advocates for the Australian space industry, but have lacked the official mandate to coordinate and speak for the whole of the industry and could not devote the resources that the burgeoning industry warrants.39 We need, as the Clark Report puts it – ‘One Voice, One Door'40 – and on 1 July 2018, the Australian Space Agency will take on that role.
2 Balancing local and global policy objectives
The world that the ASA is coming into is very different to the early days of space exploration. There are many pressing domestic and international policy challenges that the ASA will immediately face – reflecting that outer space is an increasingly congested, contested and competitive commons.
Outer space is not as vast as it might first appear, with more than 1,700 active satellites in Earth's orbit.41 As the number of ‘usable' orbits is limited, especially the most valuable orbits (geostationary and sun synchronous orbits), these active satellites must be manoeuvred to avoid each other, as well as avoiding the debris already in space from the over 8,100 objects previously launched.42
The United States Air Force, which runs the world's largest network of space surveillance sensors,43 tracks over 20,000 objects the size of a softball and there are about 500,000 objects the size of a marble (and many more, even smaller) that can still do damage.44
Even if it becomes feasible to clean up the debris already in space,45 the sheer number of satellites sharing orbits or crossing paths, particularly as the number of non-powered nano and micro satellites grows, means that at some point a comprehensive Space Traffic Management (STM) regime for outer space must be implemented, not just to avoid collisions with debris, but to proactively manage launches, orbital insertions, orbital manoeuvres and de-orbits46 – without which debris-creating events could cascade to become a massive debris cloud that make Earth orbits unusable for millennia. 47
A comprehensive Space Traffic Management regime must be implemented… without which debris-creating events could cascade to become a massive debris cloud that make Earth orbits unusable for millennia.
“[No] State should be accused of being a space ‘flag of convenience’ just yet, but there is an apparent commercial impetus to ignore longer-term problems, in favour of short-term profits.
There are also similar problems in respect of the electromagnetic domain as it relates to outer space. While technological developments that allow more satellites to use the same parts of the radio spectrum may delay the problem, radio spectrum is ultimately finite and the current prioritisation on a first-come, first-served basis may not be sufficient to manage the global interest in sharing this resource. 48
The benefits of space, combined with a growing dependency on space, means that there is a strategic impetus to develop capability to deny others the use of space, while protecting your own use of space. While space was previously thought of as remote and insulated from terrestrial disputes, space is now an integral part of strategic planning for militaries around the world,49 including for our own Australian Defence Force.50
For this reason, counter-space capabilities have been developed and tested – and may be deployed in the future.51 This raises questions about
what may be lawfully targeted in space, including civilian satellites that are only incidentally used for military purposes (dual use) and the legal and normative framework applicable to military space activities, including in periods of tension and hostilities. 52
As the cost of space activities falls, space becomes accessible to a wider range of States and companies, and even individuals.53 This supports the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals 203054 including promoting growth and prosperity for all people.55 Considering the potential benefits of space includes the ability to connect all people for education, development, commerce, there is a strong incentive for industry to produce the means to achieve those goals.
It is also very much consistent with the aspirations of the Outer Space Treaty (OST) – that the “exploration and use
of outer space … shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries … and shall be the province of all mankind”.56 Those are laudable aspirations, but if we are to realise “the great prospects opening up before mankind” in a commercial sense, there will need to be certainty on what rights States, companies, and individuals can exercise in outer space.
This includes such rights as access to, tenure over and extraction of minerals in outer space – an endeavour of increasing importance as terrestrial resources become depleted to the point where they are no longer economically, or environmentally, viable to extract.57
It also includes the establishment of colonies in orbit and on celestial bodies – potentially as a ‘back-up' for planet Earth, and because we feel compelled, as a species, to explore.58
There is currently little in place to resolve a dispute between two parties seeking to undertake the same activities, in the same place, at the same time. Furthermore, without certainty on these rights, obtaining finance and making commercial decisions on the risk versus rewards is significantly more difficult.59 And what of the great scientific prospects from the exploration of outer space? Without some assurance of ongoing funding and of non-interference by other activities (such as commercial activities), many space exploration projects for scientific purposes may not be viable.
It is currently left to States (not a supra-national body) to authorise and continually supervise “national activities in outer space”.60 So in an era of rapidly growing commercial value, a ‘lowimpact' regulatory framework may offer one State a competitive advantage relative to another. That is, a State that does not enforce proactive measures to avoid congestion, for example, may be more likely to attract foreign investment to its shores. It becomes, to use a term from the maritime environment, a ‘flag of convenience'.61
Whereas the US currently has a quite comprehensive and responsible regulatory framework for supervising space activities, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act seeks to significantly reduce the regulatory burden, thereby promoting more space commerce in the US.62 This is in addition to legislation from November 2015 that allow its commercial entities to extract minerals and to deal with extracted minerals as their own (for example, to possess, own, use and sell them),63 notwithstanding that, according to the OST, outer space is “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” 64
Luxembourg has passed similar legislation.65 Meanwhile, revised legislation on the regulation of space activities is expected to be introduced into Australian parliament in the very near future, with a similar aim. 66
That is not to say that any State should be accused of being a space ‘flag of convenience' just yet, but there is an apparent commercial impetus to ignore longer-term problems, in favour of short-term profits.
In the race to use, explore and exploit outer space, including the congested Earth orbits, to protect your use and deny others the benefits of space in the context of hostilities, and to obtain and preserve competitive advantage for your commercial entities, some nations may prevail at the expense of others – despite the noble aspirations in the OST.
Furthermore, if the use of outer space is unsustainable, then the current generation may enjoy more of the benefits, than the next and future
THERE WILL NEED TO BE CERTAINTY ON WHAT RIGHTS STATES, COMPANIES, AND INDIVIDUALS CAN EXERCISE IN OUTER SPACE.
generations. Not only is this in contrast to the aspirations of the OST that the use and exploration of outer space “shall be the province of all mankind”,67 it is at odds with the undeniable reality of the growing importance of civil society.
Today, in the developed world, almost everyone can connect to everyone else, thanks in a large part to existing and growing space infrastructure68 and projects like the ‘Other 3 Billion' (O3B) are seeking to connect people in the developing world.69 This allows people to identify not just with their nations, but also to identify themselves with broader concerns shared within global civil society.
Thus, if global civil society perceives that space is being used contrary to global and inter-generational equity, it is a global concern that transcends national boundaries. If the use and exploration of outer space truly is the province of all humanity, then how is ‘humanity' (via States) given a voice?
3 Role of the Australian Space Agency
Public, commercial, scientific and civil aspirations for space are not necessarily inconsistent. For the most part, the challenges above are shared, global challenges, across all sectors of the space community. Any solutions that Australia can develop are potentially solutions that may be embraced by the global space community as a whole.
The challenges therefore represent positive opportunities for the sort of innovative researchers and enterprises that characterise the Australian space community. In order to help Australia develop solutions that will be embraced, the ASA will need to maintain awareness and influence globally, engage all sectors of the community globally and domestically, guide and lead the domestic space community, facilitate multi-disciplinary collaboration within the domestic space industry and advocate for our solutions globally.
Australia is already involved in space matters in the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), in the Conference on Disarmament, the UN General Assembly First and Fourth Committees and elsewhere. The ASA will be involved in continuing the representation of Australia's interests in those bodies, in conjunction with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 70
Australia has been previously underrepresented in formal settings involving national space agencies (lacking a space agency of our own) and in global space industry events. We have had representation in peak bodies of specific segments of the space community, like the Committee on Earth Observation Satellites (CEOS)71 and the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR),72 albeit
without an overarching, coordinated, national approach. The ASA must continue and seek to expand Australian representation to maintain awareness of policy positions, challenges, potential solutions and innovations.
We have a positive reputation in those fora, and obviously, that must continue. A coordinated, national approach represents an opportunity to proactively use our reputation to extend our influence – not just to contribute to the agenda, but to frame the agenda – and not just to identify opportunities, but to actually create opportunities.
The opportunity to maintain the highest levels of awareness and to have influence also arises in less official settings. The rationale for multi-sectoral engagement is to unify the Australian space community, to leverage our relatively small but agile population, and ultimately, to identify and develop more holistic solutions. The ASA must engage the population directly, in light of the great interest that space inspires, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics knowledge, skills and experience that individuals can bring to the industry and, not least, because of the undeniable and growing power of civil society.
Without industry, of course, there will be no goods and services for the benefit of society generally. The ASA must understand the challenges that industry faces and work collaboratively on regulatory settings that enhance our domestic industry. Without science and research, innovation will stall, so the ASA must be able to identify, fund and support the transformation of technical innovations into viable solutions for industrial application. 73
Finally, without broader government objectives implemented through specific policies, there will be little coordination and direction to ensure returns on investment to the public at large, now and into the future. At present, there are disparate responsibilities for space issues across Australian federal, state and territory agencies74 and the ASA will play a key role in coordinating their efforts consistent with a unified, national strategy.75
In respect of each one of those sectors, there is a formal and relatively conventional role for the ASA: to educate, regulate, fund and coordinate. That will not be enough to help Australia develop solutions that may be embraced by the global space community as a whole. The ASA must also lead.
It should inspire the population and the next generation to get behind the Australian space community and what it is seeking to achieve. It should facilitate and support science and research in every step of the transformation into viable solutions for industrial application. It should guide the coordination of governmental agencies, step up and out in front as a trusted advisor on a unified, national strategy for space.
And having done all of that, it should actively collaborate with industry to produce competitive solutions that encompass the interests of all sectors of the space community.
Space Traffic Management is a good example of the need for multi-disciplinary approaches. There are a variety of enterprises that have committed themselves to addressing the problem of growing space debris, but despite their scientific innovation in conceiving of technical solutions,76 they need input from at least two other disciplines.
First, they need to identify a business
There are disparate responsibilities for space issues across Australian federal, state and territory agencies and the ASA will play a key role in coordinating their efforts consistent with a unified, national strategy.
ASA will need to support not just technological enterprises in Australia, but also home-grown enterprises that facilitate awareness and influence.
case, or a complementary economic environment – why, or in what circumstances would someone pay for debris removal services when there is no imperative on individual space operators to ‘clean up their mess'?77
Secondly, it needs a regulatory environment that supports its technical solutions – the current regulatory framework exposes their prospective activities to uncertain risk and level of liability, and there is no clear legal basis for undertaking active debris management against space objects whose provenance is unknown, or whose States of registry do not respond positively, or at all, to requests for consent.78
This example is important for us, because Australia could secure a commercially and strategically valuable niche in the critical STM function for the global space community. 79 We have a growing number of Space Situational Awareness sensors in Australia, 80 we have companies like Skykraft, 81 EOS, 82 and Neumann Space83 seeking to create technical solutions with a business case, we have a solid global reputation in air traffic management and search and rescue (we are responsible for 11% of the Earth's surface), 84 and we have legal innovators, like Adelaide Law School, seeking regulatory frameworks that would support all of this. 85 A little facilitation from the ASA would go a long way.
Finally, the ASA must advocate for the solutions that the Australian space community can provide to address the challenges confronting the space community globally. Having engaged broadly in official and unofficial contexts, and identified and created opportunities, the ASA must ‘complete the circle' by promoting Australian solutions, and also facilitate the pairing of Australian industry with those seeking solutions.
With a modest, upfront investment in the ASA and an internal, Departmental structure, the agency will need to rely on a lot of external leverage to fulfil the prospective roles described above. Such a modest investment does entail significant risk that, if that leverage comes from foreign sources, then we cede potential, future benefits to foreign interests.
Therefore, the ASA will need to support not just technological enterprises in Australia, but also home-grown enterprises that facilitate awareness and influence, multi-sectoral engagement, guidance and leadership, multi-disciplinary collaboration and advocacy.
If the ASA can do so, there is a very bright future for the Australian space community, as a global leader in providing solutions to the considerable challenges confronting the global space race.
A truncated list of references and citations is included on page 44. The full, extensive list of citations is available at: http://bit.ly/aqspace
IMAGE: NASA'S Earth Observing Project Science Office
IMAGE: Spacex Falcon Heavy Demo 2018