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06.12.2013Does Australia Have A Space Future?

Australia would seem the logical spot for a launch/space economy.

bruce Dorminey, Forbes.com

With endless vistas, thousands of miles of unadulterated coastline, and shockingly desolate red deserts, Australia would seem the logical spot for a launch/space economy.

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But nearly sixty years into the space age, Australia is still one of the few technologically-advanced, international players without an official national space agency.

“Australia does look lonely in not having a space agency,” said Andrew Dempster, director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the University of New South Wales. “When countries communicate with each other about space matters, Australia is locked out of that process. We don’t have a vision for what we want to be doing in space. There seem to be a lot of people arguing we do nothing, which I can’t accept.”

But Brett Biddington, founder of a Canberra-based space and cyber security consulting company, says that those with no knowledge of the Australia’s classified defense and national security apparatus think that the government does nothing space-related.

He admits, however, that other than in “muted terms,” the government has seen “no need to devote time and resources to explain to the Australian people why its approach to space is as it is.”

In truth, the main reason may have more to do with geography.

“Somewhat surprisingly to some, Australia does not have good sites for orbital launches,” counters Biddington. “That’s because as the spent launcher casings come back to earth, they invariably threaten cities, other high value economic activities (such as mines) or the sovereign integrity of our neighbors.”

Biddington says the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA), a 70 year-old defense testing range in the state of South Australia, simply lies in the wrong place.

“Woomera was great for sub-orbital launches to the northwest in the development of 1st generation delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons,” said Biddington. “But it’s too far South for launches to Geostationary orbit (GEO). And for Low-earth orbit (LEO), launches to the Northeast place a very rich mine right in the path of 1st stage debris. To the Southeast and the city of Adelaide is right in the [launch] path.”

Since the 1950s, Biddington reiterates that most of the Australian government’s space activities have been highly classified; both in support of U.K. activities at Woomera and, since the 1960s, U.S. Intelligence-gathering and space-surveillance.

Yet before the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard closed it down in 1996, Australia did once have a civil and commercial space office.

“The office basically defined its role as getting a launch industry going in Australia,” said Biddington. “It failed and one of the Conservative government’s first acts was to ax the space office.”

This past April, the Australian government did initiate its first national space policy; formally as a “Satellite Utilization Policy.” But there was no funding behind the policy itself.

“A commercial and civil Australian space sector would provide enormous benefit to the economy via technology transfer spinoffs and international knowledge transfer,” said space advocate Aria Colton, a South Australia-based strategic marketing consultant. “But it’s the business end of space that we need to develop. That conversation really isn’t being had.”

In response to a Forbes.com request for comment, the Australian Department of Industry and its current Space Coordination Office noted that the recent Satellite Utilization Policy is focused on three key applications recognized to have “nationally-significant security, economic or social impacts.”

Those are “Earth Observation; Position, Navigation and Timing; and Satellite communications.” The department says that over the next five years, it expects that Australia’s civil space sector would expand in all three.

Not everyone is convinced.

“The Satellite Utilization Policy is a gravely-missed opportunity,” said Dempster. “Subsequent to its release, the government’s “space policy unit” was replaced by the Space Coordination Office, which has much reduced resources. So, the cycle of funding space, then withdrawing funding, has happened yet again.”

How does Australia function on so little space investment?

Biddington says the country has adopted highly-innovative contracting arrangements to gain access to satellite bandwidth for its military and can invest in one communications satellite and get access to a whole constellation.

“Australia eschews involvement in manned space programs,” said Biddington, “and Australian governments have steadfastly refused to invest in launch capabilities, but rather to take what it can from those who do; often in exchange for ground-station access [on Australian soil].”

Such frugality is partly due to Australia’s small tax base, which is tied to a population of only 23 million, not even that of Texas.

“The Japanese Space Agency (JAXA) hangs off a much larger economy than would an Australian agency,” said Biddington. “And the Canadians have the luxury of [seeing] their national defense looked after by the U.S. in a way that Australia does not.”

But despite the lack of a space agency, the country does remain educationally-invested in space.

“We’ve been able to establish a sizeable and influential science and engineering space-related education project without the need for a space agency,” said Carol Oliver, Associate Director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology, and Project Manager of the $5.5 million “Mars Yard” in Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.

The yard, a 140-square meter scientifically-accurate replica of the surface of mars, currently boasts a 35 kg.-rover with two even heftier “rovers” due to arrive at the yard shortly. The project — which arose in 2010 as a the result of a consortium led by the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales and a $1 million government grant — has already garnered much international attention.

But some argue that such ambitious educational projects are hardly enough, if Australia is to capture a portion of the burgeoning global space economy.

“The global space industry will be worth $400 billion by 2030, and Australia should have a target as to what part of that we want here,” said Dempster. “After the mining boom, the Australian economy needs to have sustainable high-technology industries.”

Colton notes that although an Australian commercial launch capability is viewed as cost prohibitive, support for developing applications such as remote sensing, earth observation, and supply-chain manufacturing components would be a first step.

But Biddington says there has never been a compelling business case for commercial [space] activity in Australia.

“Australia will develop conventional launch capabilities only if a compelling national security case emerges,” said Biddington. “While the alliance with the U.S. is in place, the likelihood of this occurring approaches zero.”

China’s own space ambitions could change all that. Within the next decade, Biddington says Australia, Japan and the U.S. will move closer together on both ballistic missile defense and space-based defense initiatives.

If Australia changes its mind about getting into a 21st century space race, Biddington says mobile launchers might send smaller payloads such as micro and nano-sats into LEO from near the Great Australian Bight on the continent’s southern coast. He says that the Cape York Peninsula in the far north of Queensland could potentially be used for lauches into GEO.

But more likely, within the next decade, Biddington says there will be a growing recognition that Australia has information needs not being met by data from the satellites of others.

“Whether we invest in whole satellites, hosted payloads, or satellite constellations with other partners remains to be seen,” said Biddington.

But such ideas could get sidetracked by more pressing ground-based priorities. Biddington notes that Australia’s power grids, road, rail, port, hospital and educational infrastructures are all “groaning from over-load and chronic under-investment.”

As for Australia’s long term space future?

Until there are less risky and less costly methods of access to space, Biddington foresees no “paradigm shift that would lead to next generation [launch] infrastructure in Australia.”


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