Australian government seeds a space agency, but will it take off?

Australia, we’re joining the space club! The 2018 Federal Budget revealed on Tuesday night that $26 million will be allocated over four years to establish an Australian space agency — half the sum indicated in a rumour that circulated last week.

A further $15 million will be dedicated to funding strategic projects to grow Australia’s space industry. 

The private sector is expected to contribute the remainder of the funds through investments, making the resulting institution more akin to the UK Space Agency than America’s federally-funded NASA.

Details are as yet scant, but the agency will not undertake human spaceflight missions or space exploration programs similar to those of NASA and ESA. Instead, it will likely focus on the development of a local high-tech space industry. 

Scientists and aerospace experts are thrilled to finally have the cash to kickstart the long-sought-after agency —  but their expectations are down-to-Earth.{%recommended 6872%}

The intention to establish a dedicated Australian space agency was first announced in September 2017 during the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide. Experts had argued for decades that Australia is missing out on a profitable global industry, estimated to be worth more than A$400 billion annually.

“Without an agency we’re on the outside, looking in through the window watching the technologically-developed countries race ahead in a sector which is growing 10% year on year,” says Simon Driver from International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research in Western Australia.

Australia is already regarded as “a technologically-advanced member of the international space community” with multiple groups across the country undertaking space-related activities, according to Kim Ellis, space law expert and director of Australian company International Earth & Space Technology

But efforts are scattered and uncoordinated due to a lack of practical support, and the sector doesn’t offer enough positions to keep bright STEM graduates in the country.

The agency should create jobs, improve cooperation, and boost future collaboration by becoming the central point of contact for international agencies.

“I literally have had NASA folk on the phone saying, in frustration, ‘Who do we contact to discuss this?’” Driver says.

A report released in March 2017 by the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) estimated that the Australian industry amounts to less than 1% of the global space economy, with an annual revenue of between three and four billion dollars. A space agency could double this revenue in the next five years, and within 20 we may account for 4% of the global space economy.

Now, a total of $41 million has been allocated to make this dream a reality.

It sounds like a stack of cash, but it’s a drop in the ocean compared to the funding of overseas space agencies, especially since it will be delivered over four years.

The budget doesn’t provide details on what structure the agency will take or what tasks it will be responsible for — and therefore no solid clues about how the money will be spent. 

The first year’s funding will presumably establish a headquarters and a core staff. Tipped to head the agency is Megan Clark, former Chief Executive of the CSIRO who led a review of Australia’s space industry capability last year. 

Experts have varied ideas about where the rest of the funding should be invested. 

Some suggest we should rub shoulders with bigger international space agencies by organising collaborative workshops or contributing to larger joint ventures.

For example, we currently host deep space tracking stations crucial to NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) projects. 

“Let’s change this relationship from a service role to a partnership role and leverage involvement in NASA/ESA missions,” Driver says.

This may result in establishing Australian mission control and operations centres to serve satellites and deep space missions — and we may even finally take up a long-offered membership of ESA.

 Other experts suggest that the best way to ensure our seat at the international table is to channel the funding into short-term wins, such as funding smaller start-up programs. 

Others stress that we must use it to develop a strong, unique capability that will make international partners turn to us.

According to Anton van den Hengel, director of the Australian Institute for Machine Learning at the University of Adelaide, one possibility is to build on existing expertise to deal with the deluge of data generated by new satellites.

“The Australian Institute for Machine Learning is a world leader in extracting high-level information – and thus value – from images,” he says. “We’re doing it for Google, Facebook, Canon, Bayer, Microsoft and we can do it for the Australian space agency too.”

Or, the funding could be strategically invested into collaborations with the mining industry, developing world-leading technology – such as remote operations and autonomous vehicles – crucial to future interplanetary exploration and colonisation missions.

The agency could also choose to focus on strengthening our expertise in laser communications, optical fibres, drills for planetary probes, or Earth observation satellites.

Australian National University astrophysicist Brad Tucker points out that “space is getting cheaper, so we do not need a huge budget to make a huge impact.”

Small satellites, he says, can be built for under $10 million and can revolutionise sectors that have impacts on everyday Australians, allowing us to take control of managing our land, oceans, borders and emergencies like bushfires or cyclones. We are currently heavily reliant on international partnerships to supply and support this critical infrastructure, but a space agency could change this.

Luckily, the Federal Budget has allocated a further $260 million to developing our own core satellite infrastructure and technologies. 

Many experts also suggest that the space agency should take advantage of Australia’s unique geography, as we have access to a range of latitudes and longitudes.

“We do not have to build the rockets, but by opening up spaceports – such as in the Northern Territory — we can access important orbits that are hard to get from other parts of the world,” Tucker explains. “Build it, and they will come.”

These bright ideas seem endless, but we can’t address them all.

“The space agency needs to pick one clear direction and back it properly,” van den Hengel says. Otherwise, we risk ending up with “a thin spread of funding, a lot of money spent on admin, and no significant capability development.”

Of course, the agency not only has to be launched but also kept off the ground in the long-term.

“The real question is: what annual budget will the agency have after the four years currently funded?” asks Kerrie Dougherty, independent space historian and a lecturer at the International Space University, based in France.

“If this budget is not adequate for the agency to effectively carry out the tasks assigned to it by government, then the agency will ultimately fail, as the Australian Space Office did in the 1990s.”

The ASO was a previous attempt to establish an agency. It was formed by the Keating Labor government in 1987 with a similar budget to the one just announced, and folded in 1996 when the Howard Coalition government came to office. 

Andrew Dempster, director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the University of New South Wales, warns that there must be “a bipartisan approach to funding the agency for an extended period of time. Space programs are much longer than our electoral cycle.”

The allocated funding suggests that the government is expecting the agency to run on a shoestring budget and depend on the private sector to invest significantly in space projects. 

It is unclear how this will play out, adding to the host of pressing questions generated by the budget reveal.

Only time will provide the answers, but at least our engines have been ignited.

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