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Cosmos Briefing: Building Australia’s Space Industry

Australia’s Space Agency is young, but that doesn’t mean we should be underestimated in space: that’s the message from yesterday’s Cosmos Briefing.

Aude Vignelles, Chief Technology Officer at Australian Space Agency; Adam Gilmour, CEO of Queensland-based Gilmour Space Technologies; and Cassandra Steer, a lecturer and researcher in space law at the Australian National University, discussed the evolving industry.

The session was hosted by the Royal Institution of Australia’s lead scientist, Alan Duffy.

Vignelles says that “In Australia, we’ve been working in space for a long time.

“Remember the role we had during the landing on the moon: our communication capability has been top notch for quite a long time.”

She also characterises the sector in Australia as “vibrant”.

“There are areas where we are very mature and very experienced, there are other areas where we are developing this maturity.”

She cites the country’s mining experience as an example of our competitive advantage. 

“Remote operation and robotics is an area of priority for us. And when you look at all the work that we are doing remotely in the mining industry, when everything is operated from Perth in the Pilbara region that is 2000 kilometres away, we have an expertise there.

“Do we want to do everything? No, we need to pick up the areas where… we have, as I said, a competitive advantage.”

Competitive advantages come from technicians with the right skills. Gilmour says engineering is key but there are a number of other skills needed for the space industry.

“There’s a wide gamut of skills in our rocket company, but the bulk of them are engineers,” he says.

“We need all kinds of engineers – electrical engineers, chemical engineers, civil engineers, for launch sites… We obviously have a decent-sized documentation team, which has legal expertise, we have a marketing team. On the actual manufacturing side, we need a lot of people that have welding skills, machining skills.

“What I’d love to see is a greater engagement between companies like ours and universities, where we work on curriculum.

“That’s really valuable experience for companies like ours, because otherwise, we’ve got to teach them as soon as they come in, it takes six to 12 months. And you know, if they’re failing, they’re failing on our dollar. And it’s more expensive.”

Steer adds that space-oriented professionals from both STEM and non-STEM fields are going to become valuable.

“There’s two messages,” she says. “One is we need to have more people looking at STEM careers, more girls going into STEM, more indigenous kids going into STEM… But then, if you’re like me, not actually a very mathematically oriented person and you’re much more into the humanities, there are whole career trajectories there. And right now, I think something that Australian government and decision makers and policy makers need is a better understanding of space. So we actually need greater space literacy across the board.”

Space is currently governed by international treaties, which Steer believes should inform domestic space law.

“You have to think of [the international treaties] like a constitution,” she says.

“So we have international law regulating states, but out of that we have the states, the countries, regulating individual companies as well as their own government activities.”

Australia is the only country in the world to be a signatory to both the Moon Agreement, and the Artemis Accords. There is tension between these two charters: while the Moon Agreement specifies that countries can’t claim resources in space, the Artemis Accords claim that mining can occur in accordance with its provisions.

Steer and Vignelles believe this is a valuable opportunity for Australia, both on a technical and a diplomatic level.

“It puts us in a difficult position. But it also puts us in a really amazing position in terms of who Australia [is] going to be as a middle power in the 21st century,” says Steer.

“Global relations are shifting. Middle powers like Australia have once again, like they did decades ago, a really important role to play in terms of diplomacy… Australia actually has a really great opportunity to step up and try and influence the US and say: space is a global commons. We want part of this this competitive environment, we want to be part of the Artemis program. But we want to make sure that it adheres to the principles of our constitution for space, which is that it should be accessible for all, and it should be regulated internationally.”

Vignelles agrees, believing this is “a fantastic opportunity to do things right”.

While governments used to be the sole drivers of space exploration, the commercial space industry has boomed in the past decade.

Steer says there is plenty of collaboration between government and business in the Australian space sector, but both have certain responsibilities.

“We have a space agency with a pretty amazing mandate, which is to support industry,” she says. “It’s not to set up a government-owned civil space program, it’s to pour government money into industry, and have that be Australia’s presence in space. That’s really exciting. And companies around the world are looking to Australia to see what’s happening for that reason. But we have to be careful.

“We also want to be a responsible actor in space. And that requires thinking long term.

“That’s a great opportunity for Australia to stand up and have a voice internationally on that and to demonstrate that by implementing those kinds of requirements into our domestic laws, while also making sure that doesn’t hinder industry.” 

Gilmour says that the government has two key roles to play in encouraging small- and medium-sized enterprises in space technology: providing funding for research and development in getting technologies into space, and being an early customer for those businesses.

He also says that the defence force hasn’t been heavily involved in the Australian space industry, but it is beginning to become interested.

“They definitely want access to space, they want sovereign capability, they want sovereign satellites. And so I think that in the years ahead, they’re going to be much more involved in the commercial space industry, because the commercial space industry will provide them the services they want for the defence needs.”

Vignelles agrees with this: “To me, when you do space, you talk to defence.”

The Australian Space Agency is now two years old. What can we expect in the next two years?

“I’ve been in Australia for 20 years and wondering why we didn’t have a space agency. So I dreamed of a space agency, we have one now,” says Vignelles. She believes satellite manufacturing is the next big focus for the space agency.

Steer believes space education will be critical over the next two years, as well as “being regional leaders” in international space law.

Gilmour’s answer is simple: “An Australian satellite, launched on an Australian launch vehicle, from an Australian launch site.”

“And we’re trying to do that next year!”

Read more about in these Cosmos online articles:

The Royal Institution of Australia has an Education resource based on this article. You can access it here.