Part­ing shot

The re­cent an­nounce­ment that Aus­tralia is get­ting its own space agency is great news, writes FRED WAT­SON. Here’s why.

Australian Geographic - - Contents -

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.

FRED WAT­SON is an as­tronomer at the Aus­tralian As­tro­nom­i­cal Ob­ser­va­tory and AUS­TRALIAN GE­O­GRAPHIC’s space colum­nist.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.