Australia’s space ambitions might yet be floored by funding shortfalls, and a lack of national strategy.
Australia needs to commit to a national space program built around its own space missions, the Australian Academy of Science says, as it warns the nation is falling short.
A draft report on the next decade in space says there is not enough funding in the fledgling space industry to sustain “the necessary basic research”.
And, according to Australia in Space: a decadal plan for Australian space science, there is no national strategy and a “profound workforce skills gap”.
These shortfalls must be addressed for Australia to play its role in answering key science questions such as how the solar system evolved and formed, and whether there are other habitable worlds. A national strategy would boost achievements in understanding solar winds and space weather, and advancements in space medicine.
The report, prepared by an expert working group convened by the National Committee for Space and Radio Science, is now open for consultation.
Committee Chair Emeritus Professor Fred Menk says they’ve been working on the plan since early last year, with surveys, town hall meetings, and expert working groups leading to an earlier rough draft. He says after a process of “constructive criticism” he’s hopeful this version will be close to the final plan.
Menk says now is probably the most exciting time in space science because of the way technology has evolved and opportunities have opened up. Even after all this time, he’s been impressed by the existing breadth and depth of Australian space science and our level of “international credibility”.
But more is needed, he says, to achieve the vision of Australian-driven space missions.
The report’s authors argue that federal organisations including Geoscience Australia, CSIRO, and the Bureau of Meteorology “focus on applied or operational aspects and do not fund basic research”. The Australian Space Agency and the Defence Department focus on developments that are already technologically advanced.
“New federal investment in space activities (e.g. Moon to Mars initiative; SmartSat CRC) does not support basic space science and engineering research, or requires substantial commitments from industry partners,” the authors write.
“Competition between states and ad hoc grant schemes further confuse the picture. The result is an ad hoc funding environment, with new entities that have perceived or real overlapping remits with the ARC (Australian Research Council), but insufficient support to sustain the necessary basic research.”
They are calling for a Lead Scientist within the agency to be a representative voice for science, and a national strategy to “build the critical mass necessary for sustainable growth of the space sector and sovereign capability”.
For Australia to be an “equal partner in the global community of spacefaring nations” it must have Australian science teams leading Australian space missions, with Australian-built payloads and spacecraft systems.
That in turn would stimulate innovation, advance science, inspire citizens and give confidence to investors.
The federal government announced the formation of the agency in 2018, and gave it the job of tripling the size of the space industry by 2030, lifting the industry’s revenue to $12 billion and creating 20,000 jobs.
The level of promised funding was criticised by some at the time as being too low – particularly compared to other national space agencies such as NASA. There was an initial investment of $41 million over three years, with separate funding for the SmartSatCRC, defence and other space-related areas.
However, the government has consistently said it is the industry, not the government, that will drive growth. After the announcement of the agency’s creation, the government said it would be small and nimble, unlike other nation’s agencies.
“I wouldn’t want to talk it down, but it’s not NASA,” South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham said.
Industry, Science and Technology Minister Christian Porter says overall the federal government has invested nearly $700 million in the civil space sector since 2018.
That investment will help “to develop world-leading space infrastructure, to support space science in Australia and to create new technologies that will build Australia’s space competitiveness and capability”.
“The Morrison Government’s $1.3 billion Modern Manufacturing Initiative also includes space as one of six national manufacturing priority areas,” he says.
“The initiative is a major opportunity that will lift space manufacturing capability in Australia, drive collaboration between both industries and facilitate access to domestic and global supply chains.”
Alongside the MMI, the Government released a space manufacturing roadmap that looks at opportunities including in robotics, satellites, launch vehicles, sensors, communications arrays and position, navigation and timing tools.
Menk agrees that Australia will not have a “NASA”. “We can’t hope to emulate that. We don’t have the population base or the funding base,” he says. But Australia can do more by growing its STEM capability, setting up missions of “pure discovery”, and inspiring people.
He sees it as more of a “pipeline” approach, with school and university students building CubeSats, those universities engaging with industry, building their teams and then larger satellites that can help with bushfire detection, water-quality monitoring, climate change studies, and meteorology.
The report is open for public consultation until August 29.
You can hear CSIRO’s commercialisation specialist Dr Ilana Feain, Fleet Space Technologies chief executive officer Flavia Tata Nardini, and the Royal Institution of Australia’s lead scientist Professor Alan Duffy discuss how startups and the commercialisation of academic projects will feed into the industry at this Cosmos Briefing.
Tory Shepherd is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist who has covered Space 2.0 for The Advertiser.