201009 space week

The sky is not the limit

Space is a part of our daily lives here on Earth: think multi-day weather forecasts, directions on your smartphone from your home to work, and satellite TV.

Our emergency services during flood and fire increasingly want to use it to allow them to have early bushfire detection, or relief detail for planning of infrastructure rebuild when the rains finally do come.

The global space economy was valued at US$366 billion (about AU$513 billion) in 2019 by Bryce Space and Technology, and is expected to reach US$1 trillion (about AU$1.4 trillion) by 2030 according to the Bank of America (or 2040 if you ask Morgan Stanley). Suffice to say the economic numbers are eye-watering.

Technology relentlessly drives the cost of accessing space down thanks to SpaceX’s reusable rockets and the competition they have unleashed. Venture Capital is funding new start-ups such as Australia’s Gilmour SpaceTech in the launch sector. We have three new launch facilities underway in the Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia to service this growing launch sector.

More rockets mean more satellites, but these aren’t the enormous, cumbersome satellites of old. Instead, microelectronics drives smaller, yet smarter, satellites that offer new ways to view the Earth from start-ups like Planet, which in less than a decade launched the largest Earth-observing fleet of satellites in history.

We also use space as a way to relay information from Earth, with Australia’s Myriota and Fleet taking data from sensors in farms, trains and remote mining operations, raising productivity and increasing safety.

CSIRO is working with industry to develop CSIROSat-1. Credit: Inovor/CSIRO

Australia has invested $245 million cash and in-kind to form the SmartSat CRC to drive collaboration between existing space giants, new start-ups and universities (of which my own Swinburne University of Technology is a core partner).

The aim is nothing less than to build the nation’s space industry and help achieve the (now two-year-old) Australian Space Agency’s mandated target of by 2030 tripling the domestic space industry to $12 billion and creating 20,000 new jobs here.

Just as important is the Australian Government’s investment of $160 million to improve satellite positional accuracy. Forget Uber Eats delivery to your house: the new system will see it delivered to either your left or right hand. If that seems unnecessarily fancy, then imagine it’s an emergency drone delivering (or perhaps even applying) a defibrillator to a heart-attack victim in the street.

To go beyond the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology of old we need local, Earth-based location transmitters (think like a lighthouse of old but with radio waves) known as a Satellite-Based Augment System.

Australia and New Zealand are jointly creating a new system for our region to deliver positional accuracy of better than 10 centimetres. Who knows what new kinds of business, environmental and safety opportunities this kind of capability presents? If past successes are any guide, not even the sky’s the limit.

Alongside all of this stands our $150 million pledge to create new Australian technologies that support NASA’s Moon to Mars program. When the first woman steps foot on the Moon in 2024, Australia can be proud knowing we helped to make this historic moment happen, just as we were when Neil Armstrong took that giant leap in 1969 on the Sea of Tranquillity.

Last, what better way to celebrate World Space Week than the announcement that Reinhard Genzel, Andrea Ghez and Roger Penrose have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their theoretical and observational work on black holes.

One of the most astounding sights in all of astronomy is to see entire stars pulled around a completely empty centre of the Milky Way galaxy, a staggeringly challenging observational effort by Genzel and Ghez.

The implications of such an orbit is that immeasurable gravitational forces are at work to pull these stars around – something that can only be millions of times the mass of our Sun, squeezed into a tiny region within that orbit. Something that can only be a supermassive black hole.

If seeing is believing, then to see these stars orbit a fundamentally invisible monster is to make real the General Relativity equations worked on for decades by Penrose, rightly recognised for this advancement in our current understanding of Einstein’s legacy (including the Penrose diagrams), as well as definitively showing that dying massive stars will form black holes.

Credit: Fredrik Sandberg / TT News Agency / AFP via Getty Images.