Budget headline: Earth observation gets huge boost

The Australian Space Agency (ASA) has its first mission. The federal budget has allocated $1.16 billion for a home-grown, complete Earth observation system – covering everything from rockets and launchpads to satellites and data processing.

The money entrenches the federal government as the primary customer of Australia’s nascent commercial space sector. In return, it wants a sovereign, resilient and self-sufficient ability to monitor what’s happening within Australia’s territorial boundaries.

The ASA’s director of Earth observation, Reece Biddiscombe, welcomed the news during an online presentation of its Space Roadmap on Wednesday morning.

“It’s a historic moment for us,” he said. “We’re really excited. Everyone is beside themselves and almost wondering if it’s still real because we actually want to do a bunch of these things.”

Specifically, the ASA has been tasked with coordinating the design, build and operation of four satellites. They are to be put into orbit starting 2024–25.

“That’s a big challenge for us,” Biddiscombe said. “But it does reinforce our commitment to growing Australia’s space capability.”

The budget announcement coincided with the second of the ASA’s Earth Observation Roadmap information sessions. It detailed the national plan to direct Australian research and commercial investment towards a specific objective.

“The really big picture is the world is changing,” Biddiscombe said. “We are living with the impacts of this on a daily basis. And few nations are as impacted as Australia – with a shout-out to our Pacific neighbours who are worrying about water levels. We have a whole lot of other things to worry about – fire and drought in particular. And then there are those broader issues about maintaining national security and understanding what’s going on in our borders. EO (Earth Observation) is the best technology to help us do all of those things.”

Science and Technology Minister Melissa Price said the Earth observation project would create some 500 jobs over the first four years. And the build phase is expected to involve more than 100 Australian companies.

“Developing and launching these first four Australian satellites will create the foundation of industry know-how for more complex space missions next decade,” Price said shortly after the budget was released. “That means more expertise and more jobs right here in Australia in this critical industry.”

GeoScience Australia will operate the four satellites. The CSIRO will be responsible for building ground stations to manage them and process their data. The Department of Defence, the Bureau of Meteorology and the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources will be the primary beneficiaries.

The National Space Mission has a specific target. But the ASA says it also has a lot of crossovers.

“What we’re saying we want, by the end of the decade, [is] to have the ability to be able to design, qualify, operate and dispose of our own satellite systems to do Earth observation,” Mr Biddiscombe told the assembly of Australian space researchers, investors and manufacturers. “If we build everything for EO, there’s a lot of overlap there … a lot of it is translatable.”

Earth observation is not exactly an undeveloped market; it’s one of the biggest and most established space sectors globally. But it’s one with several Australia-sized holes in it.

“We think we found some specific market gaps, particularly around water quality and bushfire fuel loads,” Mr Biddiscombe said. “There’s water quality monitoring for smaller water bodies and against particular issues like cyanobacteria. And we found gaps in the global sensing system for particular kinds of forest in Australia.”

Data calibration and validation capabilities are another major roadmap priority. It’s about finding ways to collate, validate and standardise the output of various Earth observation sources into useful formats.

Also among budget allocations for space is $65 million (delivered in $13 million parcels over five years) to “set the conditions for rocket launch from Australia”. Another $25.2 million will be injected into the International Space Investment initiative encouraging Australian cooperation with the Indian space sector. Some $12.1 million (divided over five years) will be dedicated to regulatory reform, and $9.5 million (over two years) for a national Space Strategic Update plan.

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