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Australia must prioritise building its own satellite launch facilities

Posted By on April 28, 2023 @ 11:50

Australia’s burgeoning satellite industry faces a looming crisis: a shortage of launch facilities to put its technology into orbit. If left unaddressed, this crisis will add cost and delay to realising Australia’s plans for space.

The Government, universities and businesses are identifying more ways to use satellites for national security, research and economic growth, but none of these services can be accessed until the satellites are orbiting. Therefore, launch facilities are vital. This should be obvious, but the Australian space industry mostly focuses on developing smart satellite payloads.

Instead, it needs to prioritise building a space port—an essential piece of infrastructure that would enable our much-heralded revolution in space technology.

Globally, space innovation is considered a key driver of the fourth industrial revolution [1]. Satellite applications boost productivity and efficiency across many sectors including agriculture, mining, telecommunications, climate and meteorology, as well as defence and location-based services.

In Australia too, our economy, security and civic life are already irreversibly dependent on satellites, and over the past 15 years our space industry has undergone rapid evolution and commercialisation in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) applications. But there is still a critical absence of the permanent infrastructure needed to launch LEO satellites.

Australia currently uses overseas launch capabilities, but reliance on other nations’ launch schedules and availability can lead to costly delays. On top of that, we’re now in a time of increased demand and rapidly changing strategic risk, so it’s even more urgent that we end our dependence on others.

There are launch facilities in the United States, Japan, India, China, Europe and South America, and the demand for these is expected to exceed supply by 3:1 over the next 10 years. And with the global strategic balance under stress, access to these launch sites can be quickly cut. For instance, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cut access to launch facilities in Kazakhstan—a reduction of 15-20% in large payload launch facilities available to the Western world.

The war has also demonstrated that the space domain is the first to be attacked in modern conflicts; Russia disrupted or destroyed Ukraine’s global positioning systems (GPS), essential communications and satellites prior to invasion. Satellites may also become unavailable due to direct military action, obsolescence, change in the orbital environment or equipment failure. Certain areas may need coverage and not be able to get it.

The lesson is clear: geopolitical instability and war can simultaneously limit access to launch facilities and increase the need for more launches. Australia’s future space operations will need to respond to military action or natural disasters in a flexible, timely manner.

The conflict in Ukraine also showed that a country controlling a key space resource can deny others access to data, affecting the success of launch and space operations, whether combat or humanitarian. To operate without disruption, Australia’s space industry will need to be confident in a continuous supply of data, and a sovereign launch infrastructure can help achieve this.

Things are moving in the right direction but not fast enough. Space capabilities were designated as a sovereign industrial capability priority (SICP) [2] in 2021 by the Morrison government, along with robotics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence. SICPs have a strong focus on building ‘a robust, resilient and internationally competitive defence industry’, and more broadly to boost critical industry and a technology-focused workforce. But a detailed plan for space as a SICP is yet to be released. The Albanese government must address this.

For an Australian sovereign industrial capability for space to deliver any practical economic or security outcome, it’s vital to understand that the space SICP needs to be about more than developing satellites. What counts is the end-to-end space value chain [3]: every aspect of the industry contributing to production, operation, supply and enablement activities.

If Australia develops its own space launch capability, we can know when, where and how to make the most of our satellites, benefiting our economy, security and society. Australia would have the flexibility and resilience to ensure continuity of space-based data. We could replace unserviceable satellites and launch new satellites without waiting for access to facilities overseas.

Space Centre Australia [4] is one such company building strategic launch infrastructure capabilities, with a $750 million project in development in Far North Queensland. Having started with internal funding, the project is now collaborating with the federal and Queensland governments. First launches are anticipated after 2026.

Last year the project achieved significant milestones. Negotiating began on Indigenous land use agreements, environmental analysis was undertaken and development approvals were received. Progress was made on site design, the number of staff increased and the initial stages of securing federal government funding were passed.

To achieve Australian sovereignty, we need a domestically owned, globally competitive strategic launch infrastructure that prioritises Australian interests. Addressing this need is an essential first step in realising Australia’s ambitious space plans, strengthening our defence capability and developing a sophisticated, resilient economy.


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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australia-must-prioritise-building-its-own-satellite-launch-facilities/

URLs in this post:

[1] fourth industrial revolution: https://www.weforum.org/focus/fourth-industrial-revolution

[2] sovereign industrial capability priority (SICP): https://www.defence.gov.au/business-industry/capability-plans/sovereign-industrial-capability-priorities

[3] space value chain: https://www.industry.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-02/snapshot-report-australian-civil-space-sector-2016-17-to-2018-19.pdf

[4] Space Centre Australia: https://spacecentreaustralia.com/

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