Call for Australian eyes in the sky

Storms, drought, fish stocks, volcanic ash – their behaviour can only be accurately tracked and predicted with regular, reliable satellite observations.

But our weather data comes from Japan. Our environmental monitoring is done by the US. A whole host of other practical information comes from international Earth observation satellites.

“This poses a significant sovereign risk as growing environmental, commercial and geopolitical stresses mean Australia’s future access to this data is far from guaranteed,” a briefing by the Australian Academy of Science warned yesterday.

The implications are profound.

The director of UQ’s Remote Sensing Research Centre, Professor Stuart Phinn, points to the volcanic ash cloud currently drifting towards Australia after Tonga’s catastrophic eruption.

Where it is, how high it is – all are vital, as the ash can seize aircraft engines.

“You can’t get this information without having Earth observation satellites in place,” Phinn warns.

And we only have that information thanks to the good grace of others.

“This plan that’s being proposed will help Australia build a capability that will help its governments, its industries, and defence forces and our communities,” he says.

Credit: Australian Academy of Science

Australia in Space – A decadal plan for Australian Space Science 2021-2030 results from months of consultations and specialist committee deliberations. Its purpose is to provide a path for government, universities and industry to secure Australia’s position in a new space race.

“We’ve got groups that develop, build, launch and operate satellites. That’s the upstream side,” says Phinn. “And then the downstream side is where people take the information from satellites and turn it into information that is consumed and used by governments or private industry, or just individuals in the general public to make decisions. 

“Australia is really good at the downstream end of things at the moment. But this plan is about building our capabilities on the upstream side.”

Ad-hoc funding. Workforce skills gaps. A lack of resilience.

These are the key issues the Academy’s plan seeks to address.

Figure from australian academy of science australia in space plan including strategic and scientific priorities
A figure from the Australian Academy of Science’s ‘Australia in Space’ plan, summarising the plan’s strategy for Australia’s space R&D capability. Credit: Australian Academy of Science.

It proposes establishing the position of Lead Scientist in the Australian Space Agency. This will provide high-level coordination, advocacy and focus similar to that of the Australian Defence Chief Scientist role.

The Academy argues that establishing space science as a national research priority will help cement Australia’s position in the international space community, as well as attracting greater investment and opportunity.

It also wants space-based education to plug serious skills gaps and create a new education export industry.

“If we’re going to have colonies on the Moon or Mars, we need to understand how to provide the health needs and the nutritional needs of colonists. Neither of these is presently possible,” says AAS Chair for Space and Radio Science Emeritus Professor Fred Menk.

Australia, he says, is ideally positioned to both develop and benefit from such technology.

“We can lean upon the experience Australia has developed in working with people in isolated, confined, extreme environments. And people on long-term human space expeditions will help improve the delivery of health services for people in sedentary, ageing populations”.

Large machine shooting a red laser into the night sky with stars in the background
The Western Australian Optical Ground Station, which AAS hopes will become part of a national network of next-gen space communication facilities. Credit: ICRAR.

It’s not all rocket science.

How light and radar interact with our atmosphere. What sensors are best to measure plant health. How to measure moisture levels in individual fields and globally.

All are new technologies that need to be developed.

“Then we have to apply algorithms that turn those pictures into measurements or maps that people can make decisions from. That’s space science,” Phinn says.

“That information has to be put in a form that it can be used in an operational context by government, industry, or whatever. And again, there’s a whole set of sciences there.”

That, he says, is why an integrated approach is needed.

“[With the plan] we’re able to build the science that’s going to support industry development, government development, community development, for using space capabilities, particularly in the Earth observation area. With that, we can have that complete set of activities to design, build and launch satellite systems to deliver information for use in Australia and the rest of the world.”

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