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A Space Agency for Australia a must have

By Malcolm Davis

Earlier this month, the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Arthur Sinodinos announced that a review of Australian Space Industry would get underway. One of the most important outcomes of the review should be formation of an Australian Space Agency as an essential step forward in considering Australia’s future approach to accessing and using Space, for defence and national security purposes, as well as for civil and commercial use. Now is the right time for Australia to take advantage of transformation in the global space sector.

Rapid innovation is occurring in the development of space technology, in what is commonly known as ‘Space 2.0’. This is a new paradigm, led by the commercial sector that is lowering the cost of getting into space and exploiting space for national or commercial purposes in new and exciting ways. The potential of reusable launch vehicles to lower launch costs and expand access to space to a broader range of participants is akin to jets replacing propellers in commercial air transport in the 1960s.

At the same time, by exploiting low-cost small satellites and networked swarms of diminutive ‘CubeSats’, it’s possible for Australia to develop its own space capabilities without bearing the huge cost of traditional multi-billion dollar satellites. It’s that low-cost ‘the small and the many’ approach versus the more traditional ‘large, few and expensive’ paradigm, that is the game changer we need to exploit.

There is no reason why Australia cannot take advantage of this transformation. In the past, we’ve been content to be passively dependent on others for our use of Space.  We’ve provide a suitable piece of real estate for the ground segment, some people to operate those facilities and a regulatory framework to manage it, but we rely on others to give us access to satellites we don’t build. That dependency has risks, in terms of national security, as well as undermining our ability to compete effectively in the surging global space sector. This approach has to change, or we face the prospect of being left behind and looking on as other states reap the benefits of Space 2.0.

The global space sector has a value of US$329bn in 2016, which is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 9.52 percent. That is more than three times the annual growth rate of world GDP. The lack of Australian space industry, and the absence of an Australian space agency, means we are poorly placed to tap into that rapidly growing market. Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS) data suggests Australia’s current activities represent only 0.8 percent of the global space economy.

The Space Industry Association of Australia has proposed in a recent white paper the prospect of capturing up to 4 percent of the global space market within twenty years if we invest in Space Industry and form a Space Agency to coordinate activities. That would translate into rapid growth of jobs for Australian STEM graduates seeking careers in the space sector, rather than forcing them overseas for work. It means Australian space industry becomes a growing high-tech sector for the economy.

An Australian Space Agency would be well placed to coordinate policy direction between government departments, academia, and industry to achieve a bolder vision for Australia in space. That coordination role could extend to overseas partners, which currently have no central body that is easily identifiable for them to engage with or plan collaborative research.

This coordination role needs to strongly emphasized. In developing an Australian space agency, we should not seek to create a government-run ‘NASA down under’ type entity that controls and does everything, from building and launching rockets to operating satellites. Instead, an Australian space agency needs to coordinate and drive the rapid growth of the commercial space sector in Australia. Let Australian private industry ‘start-ups’ build Australian satellites and ultimately, develop the innovative launch capabilities that can then launch those satellites from Australian launch sites. Let the commercial sector control and operate those satellites to support Australian national and commercial interests. The focus of an agency should be firmly on boosting sustainable growth of an Australian commercial space industry sector.

A space agency would also have a critical role in developing Australian space capabilities for defence and national security. We are too dependent on the US for our vital space support in wartime. There is no reason why Australian sovereign space capabilities and a ‘sovereign space industry’ couldn’t allow us greater defence self-reliance for independent operations, and permit us to burden share in orbit with the US, and with other allies in ways that would benefit Australia and our partners. At the moment, our dependency on the US for space means we can’t contribute beyond supporting ground-based Space Situational Awareness. That’s an important role, but we could do much more.

Australia has a valuable opportunity with the Space Industry Review, and the up-coming International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide in September, to make a fundamental shift in our approach to Space. A space agency for Australia is an excellent first step to make. Let’s not get it wrong.


Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst, defence strategy and capability, at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published by: The Australian on 25 Aug 2017