Australia’s space industry is well and truly off the ground. It’s reaching for the sky. But it’s not there yet.
The promise of the global space economy has been recognised. Innovation is being celebrated. Ambitions are being nurtured. The time has come for these seedlings to bloom.
That still needs effort.
Australia must embrace a sense of urgency. But it must be tempered by accepting the risk space has always embodied. Only when our space sector is recognised as a national endeavour can the poppies we’ve planted grow tall.
The environmental and logistical challenges of space drive us to innovate, pushing technological boundaries, and creating new market sectors. Morgan Stanley expects global space revenues to grow from US$350 billion ($474 billion) in 2020 to US$1 trillion ($1.355 trillion) by 2040, largely driven by satellite constellation construction. The promise of the global space economy will require imagination and audacity to realise, but it is potentially transformative for the wider economy.
This is particularly so in Australia, blessed by geography which is near ideal for supporting space launch, deep space exploration, and space tourism. We have an entrepreneurial, if small-scale, space and innovation ecosystem. But innovation needs support, direction and time. It also requires that we must accept we may fail completely in some endeavours. This demands an appetite for risk and a depth of pocket that Australian investors, government and private, may not all share. We also must acknowledge that we can succeed spectacularly and not shy from this potential, we need to proudly champion such tall poppies.
Rocket science is a byword for advanced, challenging, and risky undertakings. It is the benchmark for excellence that superpowers and start-up billionaires alike compare and contrast one another against.
The science of space underpins the fastest growing economic sector globally in the world. Judging by recent significant VC investments in the US (investors put US$10 billion into launch 2010–20 and added US$3 billion in Q1/Q2 2021 alone), this expectation may in fact be exceeded. The Australian Space Agency targets has a target to grow the Australian space industry growth of to $12 billion by 2030.
The imperative to grow Australia’s space sector goes beyond the commercial; it has critical importance to defence, with sovereign capabilities in space key to our future national security and prosperity.
To understand the future opportunities, and the specific measures Australia should take to realise them, we first must understand the current state of the Australian space sector. Broadly speaking, the sector has excellent international connections, including through universities, to organisations such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Japanese Space Agency (JAXA). It has decades of experience in delivering space situational awareness and (primarily deep-space) communications for these partners by the CSIRO. The Australian Department of Defence participates in the Combined Space Operations Initiative with Five Eyes partners. This connects policy, operational and capability staff across nations, and underpins the most critical strategic relationships that we rely on for access to the most highly sophisticated global space architecture.
Through defence primes like Boeing, Leidos, Airbus, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and BAE Systems, we have industry-driven partnerships that have integrated local manufacturing into a global supply chain for the very highest technology systems. Examples abound, such as Electro Optic Systems (EOS), Marand Precision Engineering, Titomic, Amaero, Nova Systems, all connecting to the very large initiatives in space and defence not just nationally but also competing internationally.
With $61M invested recently in a Series C funding round, Gilmour Space Technologies has received more private funding than the entire Australian Space Agency has for four years of operations, making real the exciting and necessary promise of a sovereign launch capability for smallsat scale launches. It has also well-positioned Gilmour to act as a domestic prime alongside the likes of EOS and Nova Systems.
We have nascent but rapidly growing spaceport providers domestically too, in the Top End through Equatorial Launch Australia, Southern Launch in South Australia and most recently Gilmour at Queensland’s Abbot Point. Potential customers from these launch capabilities include the likes of NASA as well as innovative (domestic and international) commercial rocket companies, and domestic satellite operators.
Notable Internet of Space Things providers like Myriota and Fleet Space Technologies are growing rapidly by connecting low bit-rate ground sensors across Australia and beyond. FrontierSI delivers end-user products and insights to industry and government with AI applied to remote sensing from private as well as public satellites. Monitoring of this busy prime orbital real estate is being pursued by end-to-end mapping platform for space by LeoLabs, promising a level of space domain awareness unrivalled in this hemisphere.
In general, the downstream opportunities that use the data from space, as opposed to the upstream sectors such as the building of rockets or communication dishes, are typically cheaper to fund and represent a growing startup community that leverages data science skills from graduates of our world-renowned universities. A number of these startups formed the Aurora cluster of the SmartSat CRC and offer an exciting way to rapidly grow the space sector in absolute numbers, as well as interactions with adjacent sectors like agriculture. This CRC represents the single largest concentration of space R&D funds outside of defence programs and is a key driver of innovation and translation of research from academia to industry.
But we need to encourage greater industry collaboration with (and ultimately knowledge transfer from) our university sector.
Venture Capital (VC) funds and Angel Investors can be encouraged through improved ratios of matched funding schemes from government. The superannuation funds could be mobilised to create a national building activity for space through a better-informed risk assessment of the sector. We have already seen just such an undertaking by major superannuation funds HESTA, Hostplus and NGS Super, who joined that Series C fundraising round for Gilmour by VC Funds nationally (Main Sequence Ventures, Blackbird Ventures) and internationally (with the USA’s Fine Structure Ventures). If this opens the door to further significant capital influxes, we could unleash the private sector nationwide in delivering new techniques and technologies.
Yet an entire national ecosystem needs an astronomically large pull signal too. For that, significant resources and a sense of urgency, coupled with a willingness to risk short-term failure to deliver longer-term sovereign capability is required.
Developing our space sector is nothing less than a national endeavour, and it is only a coordinated national-systems approach that can likely deliver it at scale. By perceiving the space domain as a national infrastructure challenge we can secure greater investment certainty for domestic and international players over years, ensure the supply chain matures in-country, and is competitive outside it.
This investment cannot be spread thinly, it needs to be strategically and deliberately concentrated in precincts or hubs that drive a critical mass that becomes self-sustaining. There are choices involved. Tall poppies require selective nurturing, and not every sub-sector or company will flourish. But we must invest strategically in some if we are to realise a more prosperous future for all.
This article was co-written by Professor Alan Duffy, Director of the Space Technology and Industry Institute at Swinburne University of Technology, and the Lead Scientist of RiAus; and Rebecca Shrimpton, Head of Sector – Defence, Space and Infrastructure at the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade).
Originally published by Cosmos as Tall poppies growing to orbit
Alan Duffy is an astrophysicist at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. He was Lead Scientist of The Royal Institution of Australia from 2017 to 2021. Twitter | @astroduff