The Australian space industry and why it needs a space agency

Woomera Test Range, South Australia. Image courtesy of Australia's Department of Defence.

Last week, the Australian government issued a statement saying it has set up an Expert Review Group to study how Australia’s space capabilities can help the nation participate in the global market. In light of the fact that the Australian space sector does not merely want a review, but a proper space agency, this announcement seems non-committal and has garnered a mixed response from the industry.

Nevertheless, the news is at least an indication that the Australian government has taken notice of the cries of the industry and its supporters, and is encouraging in that industry professionals are represented in the review group. On the panel are Dr David Williams, former Chief Executive of the UK space agency, Dr Jason Held, Founder of Saber Astronautics, and Flavia Tata Nardini, CEO of Fleet Space Technologies, along with academics and civil servants.

The group also includes Michael Davis, Chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA), the industry body responsible for publishing Advancing Australia in Space, a white paper released in March 2017 that articulates what the industry wants from the government. The white paper might prove extremely useful to both the expert panel and the government, should the latter decide to seriously consider setting up a space agency.

Overview of Australia’s space industry

Australia has a fairly long history in space, having launched its first satellite, WRESAT, in 1967. Developed by the then Weapons Research Establishment in Salisbury, South Australia, and the Department of Physics at the University of Adelaide, WRESAT made Australia the seventh nation to launch a satellite. This launch also brought Australia the glory of being the third country to launch from its own territory, having conducted it Woomera Test Range near Adelaide.

After a very promising start, the Australian space industry seems to have lost momentum over the years. Three years after WRESAT, the amateur radio satellite Australis-OSCAR 5, built by students that the University of Melbourne, was launched in 1970.

WRESAT and Australis-OSCAR 5 were the first two Australian satellites, and they were also Made in Australia. Following them, a number of communications satellites were commissioned, but Australia failed to develop another of its own until the microsatellite FedSat in 2002, developed by the Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems. In 2017, after a 15-year gap, it launched three CubeSats as part of the international QB50 mission, with two satellites developed by the University of New South Wales and one by Sydney University.

Between 1967 and 2017, Australian involvement in the space industry has largely been passive, focusing on ground stations that are mostly collaborative efforts with other space agencies or organizations, most notably NASA.

The Australian government has also allowed many large aerospace corporations to operate in the country, with Lockheed Martin, Boeing, the Thales Group, and Inmarsat all conducting significant R&D and operations. Moreover, in recent years, there has been a surge in the number of space startups, with at least 30 companies having been incorporated over the last few years. Along with universities and non-government associations, the number of Australia-based organisations registered with the country’s Space Industry Association is 401, a sizeable number for a country without a space programme.

In spite of this, Australia’s share of the global space economy, according to the SIAA report, is only 0.8%, even though the country enjoys a 1.8% share of the world’s total economy. Generating annual revenues of $3 to $4 billion, Australia’s pie of the $323 billion space industry is rather small. One of the reasons for this, the report says, is that Australia is among the lowest investors in publicly-funded space-related research and development, suggesting it is due to a lack of will on the part of the government to develop the space industry through either funding or other forms of support.

The need for a space agency

Industry professionals, whose views are represented in the SIAA Advancing Australia in Space white paper, have individually and collectively been petitioning for the Australian government to set up a space agency. They say the government has been too passive in the space sector, investing very little and doing virtually nothing to drive growth.

Unlike many developing countries in the world, who see a space agency as a source of national pride, the Australian industry’s motivations are much more practical and are based on issues of national security and commercial growth.

For example, Australia currently receives all its satellite imagery from other agencies or organisations, such as Japan’s space agency JAXA, NASA, and the European Space Agency (ESA), all of which provide satellite data to Australia at a minimal cost, in exchange for other services such as ground support. Australian industry professionals point out that this excessive dependence on other nations is untenable and cannot guarantee Australia’s long-term national security and sustainability.

Even the Australian government admits this. The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science State-of-Space Report 2016 states, ‘Australia does not operate EOS satellites and is highly dependent on a small number of foreign satellites. Leveraging the full diversity of satellite data available is therefore challenging, and the benefits derived from EOS could be significantly undermined in the event of satellite outages or failures.’ (p. 11).  However, it does not commit to addressing this vulnerability through developing satellite capabilities, focusing rather on upgrading ground infrastructure.

The Australian commercial space sector also says it cannot maximize growth because of unclear regulations, and no relevant government body to assist in business procedures.

As the SIAA report aptly states, “There is no single agency that is responsible for setting priorities for spending on space hardware or services, or driving growth in the Australian space industry. This has led to confusion amongst international space agencies and contractors, who are unsure as to who to contact within the Australian government, and who contact a variety of government agencies or industry bodies, such as the SIAA, to obtain information about business opportunities and collaboration. While responsibility for international space relations remains fragmented across a range of agencies and offices there is little accountability for lack of progress and little incentive for success.” (p. 6)

As a testament to how a space agency can benefit the commercial sector, the white paper cites the example of  the Australian Space Research Program (ASRP). The programme ran from 2010 to 2014, for which the government invested A$40 million and achieved direct co-investment from industry of $39.1 million, leading to multiple projects which are still generating revenue today.

Designing a space agency of the future

The Australian industry has no illusions of grandeur with regards to the role a space agency should play. It does not demand a capital-intensive grand plan in which the government spearheads the entire industry by committing to developing launch vehicles, initiating space exploration and the other traditional roles of large space agencies such as NASA, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), or the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

What the industry wants is for the space agency to do what NASA is trying to do now – to move away from taking on the burden of space activities, to focus on R&D, and to provide opportunities to commercial contractors. To this end, the SIAA’s requirements are modest and will not require heavy government investment in terms of funding.

The white paper states that the space agency should be “responsible for formulating a detailed national strategy, setting growth targets, and implementing action and assistance plans to achieve these targets in consultation with industry and established space sector coordinating groups.” (p. 9) This follows the model of other government agencies, especially in the ICT sector, whereby the government plays a supportive but non-interventionist role in the industry.

The Expert Review 

The expert review, like the many reviews conducted by the Australian government, does not mention a space agency. However, it does mirror the SIAA white paper’s interest in developing the downstream and upstream elements of space activities, and thereby achieving a competitive advantage. It will also seek out strategies to promote Australian firms, and identify specific areas of the space industry with commercial potential.

Despite this, the review will once again study themes such as promoting international collaboration, which Australia clearly does not lack. While international collaboration can only be a good thing, and is something many space agencies are trying to promote, what the Australian industry wants is almost the opposite – some measure of self-reliance, if not complete independence.

Another review area is access to space data, a recurring theme that has so far avoided addressing the issue of data acquisition through proprietary satellites. Responses to this particular issue have been especially lacklustre, with the government citing such plans as “further enhancements to the regional Copernicus data access and analysis hub” (State-of-Space Report, p. 13) and other such secondary matters that do not address the real issue.

Lastly, and most promisingly, the review will address “the most effective institutional arrangements to support the strategic direction of Australia’s space industry,” which hopefully means the setting up of a space agency. However, this will certainly not happen anytime soon, dispelling hopes that a space agency will be announced in time for the International Astronautical Congress taking place in Adelaide in September this year.

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