The recent announcement that Australia is getting its own space agency is great news, writes FRED WATSON. Here’s why.
Fred Watson on Australia’s new space agency
THERE’S NOTHING like a big international symposium to bring good ideas out of the woodwork. And so it was at the end of September, when Adelaide hosted the 68th annual International Astronautical Congress, and Simon Birmingham, the federal education minister and a South Australian senator, announced Australia will get its own space agency.
This is excellent news that has been a long time coming – far longer than the two and a half months since Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Arthur Sinodinos kicked off a review of Australia’s off-planet endeavours with the aim of establishing a cohesive approach to space policy.
An expert panel chaired by former CSIRO CEO Dr Megan Clark was set up to deliberate on such issues as global engagement, the elimination of unnecessary duplication and support of space-related start-ups. In the wake of the new announcement, the panel will concentrate on the details of the new agency, including its name.
The big question, however, is what does Australia have to do with space? Many Australians think because we don’t fly astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) or robotic spacecraft to the planets, we aren’t engaged with space.
That is far from true. Most of our day-to-day life depends on space activities: we use satellites for communication, navigation, remote sensing, resource management, agriculture – and pretty much everything in between.
Commerce depends on these satellites, and so does much of our leisure time. But, mostly, we don’t give a second thought to their contributions. Moreover, Australia now plays a major role in the science and technology of space.
You’re probably familiar, for example, with the Australian National University’s Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra.Yes, its main stockin-trade is the study of the Universe rather than local stuff, but did you know that the observatory has a world-class facility for the assembly and testing of space-based instruments and small satellites? It was established in the wake of the devastating 2003 Canberra bushfires and supports the development of the next generation of instruments for astronomy and space science.
Right next door is the Space Environment Research Centre (SERC), which plays a potentially crucial role in the protection of our access to space-based services.This concerns the risk faced by every operational spacecraft of collision with human-made debris that orbits our planet.There are an estimated 170 million bits of space junk, only a tiny fraction of which is tracked.While the vast majority of this rubbish is no more than a few centimetres across, each piece is travelling at up to 8 kilometres per second, giving it devastating destructive potential against any operational spacecraft, including the ISS.
Canberra’s SERC works with the world’s leading space debris facilities to chart these renegade bits of trash and will eventually be able to tweak them into safer orbits, with the ultimate aim of eliminating the space junk problem altogether.
There isn’t room in this column to go into details about all the work of several world-class space-related research groups operating within Australian universities. But the bottom line is that space is big in Australia.
Exactly how big? Financially, the investment is worth $3–4 billion per annum, with perhaps 11,000 people earning their livelihood directly from space-related activities.
But – and this is the reason for the recent announcement – it could be even bigger; potentially much bigger. Globally, endeavours in space earn about US$420 billion per annum, representing a huge marketplace of which Australia could have a far greater share. Our neighbours across the Tasman have already recognised the potential and acted on it.They initiated their own space agency in 2016 and already fly innovative launch vehicles from New Zealand’s North Island.
As Senator Birmingham put it, “This is very much a private sector– driven undertaking in so many spaces and that is why we want to make sure Australia is at the forefront of seizing those opportunities and creating jobs and investment here.” Rapid growth is now the government’s watchword, with the opposition also pledging to double the size of Australia’s space industry within five years.