Airbus joins SA space sector

It may be a megalodon among the minnows of Australia’s spawning satellite construction industry, but the arrival of Europe’s largest aerospace company in Adelaide is a sign of a healthy, growing ecosystem, says Space Industry Association chief James Brown.

Airbus Defence and Space Ltd is what the defence and technology industries call a “prime” – a major international player at the top of the corporate food chain. It announced earlier this month it would invest in a new construction facility at the Australian Space Park planned for the Adelaide Airport.

“This is a big muscle move from a global satellite manufacturer,” Brown told Cosmos. “It comes on the heels of Airbus winning a $50 million plus contract with the Defence Science and Technology Group that means they need to launch a number of satellites over the next eight years”.

That, says Brown, will carry local industries along in its wake. 

“What’s neat about this investment is that it gives some scale to what is already happening in Adelaide.

“You’ve got Fleet manufacturing their own satellites. You’ve got Inovor manufacturing their own satellites. All in small facilities. Now, as I understand it, we’ll have Airbus creating a larger scale production facility that can be used by those other providers as well.”

Australia’s home-grown satellite industry has so far been awarded contracts for innovative, lunchbox-sized CubeSats. However Airbus says its investment in a shared space assembly and integration facility will help expand this to include satellites and other spacecraft components up to 300kg.

Small is beautiful

Lot Fourteen-based industry startup Inovor Technologies spokesman, Matthew Tetlow, agrees primes like Airbus have a vital role to play in helping accelerate the growth of associated businesses such as his own.

“Competition is certainly heating up, partly because more companies are coming into the ecosystem,” he says. “We would like to see local industry prioritised more.”

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Tetlow says Australian companies, typically small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) must be given “meaningful scope” in larger Australian projects. “Because the primes can do most things without SMEs, there may be a tendency for them to just do most of the work themselves, instead of handing the work to a local SME.”

But Tetlow believes that – at least when it comes to space – small is beautiful. “Smaller, cheaper satellites are far more aggressive on the technology side so are often much more sophisticated and autonomous.”

Survival of the fittest

The long-term viability of Australia’s emerging space industry depends upon the ongoing availability of government and defence projects, Tetlow says, “at least in the medium term.”

“Once we have flight heritage we will be able to go after international commercial opportunities, but in the early stages, government really needs to step in and support local SMEs.”

Brown agrees that surviving long enough to get noticed is the challenge for Australia’s space startups. “There’s no doubt that we will see some consolidation. That will include companies merging. That will include companies being bought out. And that will include, sadly, companies going out of business. That’s natural when you’re growing an industry.”

But, Brown adds, a sovereign satellite construction and launch capability is an essential motivator behind the Australian government’s investment. It needs Australian businesses to succeed to produce industry resilience. And it has recognised it must provide a consistent flow of ongoing defence and science projects to sustain them, he adds.

“Big multinational primes will be a part of it. We’re not going to get to where we need to get on space infrastructure on our own. But the Defence Department particularly has made it clear that they can’t be the only part of it.”

Watch video: Australian space sector priorities

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