Australia sprints into the space race

In a rare show of Federal, state, academic and business cooperation, Australia this week declared its intention to build its own space agency.

The creation of the agency was announced by the Federal Government’s Acting Industry Minister Michaelia Cash at the 68th International Astronautical Congress held in the city of Adelaide.

Later, during the same event, the federal Opposition Labor Party upped the ante by announcing its own plans for a space agency, pledging to double the size of the present Australian sector within five years. Its science spokesman, Kim Carr, said the agency would be operational by 2020.

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This is on one level quite a modest proposal. A report released earlier this year by the Space Industry Association of Australia estimated the local space sector already produced annual revenue of $3 to $4 billion and provides up to 11,500 fulltime-equivalent jobs.

The revenue figure represents a mere 0.8% of the global space economy, and pales in comparison to the hefty $330 billion of the US space industry.

Details of where and when the new space agency facilities will be built remain unknown, but at least one state – South Australia – has vowed not to wait for details. Last week the state’s premier, Jay Weatherill, pledged to build a Space Industry Centre with a focus on innovation and stimulating start-up ventures.

In a further boost to Australia’s sudden uptake of aeronautical opportunity, two prominent educational institutions – the Australian National University (ANU), in Canberra, and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) – announced a joint venture for testing space instruments and satellites. 

The venture will see scientists using the ANU’s Mt Stromlo Observatory to do much of the testing. The facility boasts state-of-the-art equipment that can reproduce the physical stresses of rocket launchers and the extreme temperatures found in outer space.

The wombat xl space simulation facility at australian national university in canberra.
The Wombat XL Space Simulation Facility at Australian National University.

Researchers at UNSW’s Canberra campus will contribute engineering knowhow, gleaned from their work on developing CubeSats – tiny autonomous satellites weighing less than 1.5 kilograms.

The flurry of announcements have been welcomed by scientists in the field. 

“A national space agency isn’t about sending people into space, it’s about creating people’s jobs here in Australia,” said astronomer Alan Duffy from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Victoria.

“I have spoken to countless students who want to know how they can work in the exciting space sector without having to go abroad. With a national space agency, our best and brightest can now create a future economy right here.”

Astronomer Michael Brown from Melbourne’s Monash University was also enthusiastic.

“Australians have long been users of foreign built or operated satellites for communications, remote sensing and research. Indeed, much of my astronomical research uses data collected by American, European and Japanese space telescopes,” he said.

“There are already Australian space-related enterprises, but an Australian space agency could really help space-related industries flourish.”

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