Setting Australia’s space priorities
9 Feb 2023|

Australia is an Indo-Pacific country with a democratic ethos. Its role in shaping the discourse on strategic policy—in areas such as representative governance structures, the rules-based international order and responsible space development—is well documented. Australia is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue along with three major democratic, space-faring nations (India, Japan and the US) that is aimed at ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Outer space is now a key strategic domain. More than 72 nations have established space agencies, and many have created new institutions to support their private space sectors and elevated space to the level of critical infrastructure. It is in this global context that Australia can play a vital role as a middle space power in scaling up space development and use. Other middle space powers like Japan have taken cutting-edge decisions to support space mining activities on the moon and invest in promising technologies like space-based solar power.

Australia established its space agency in 2018. On its website, the Australian Space Agency highlights its focus on supporting the development of the domestic space industry and taking the lead in national and international space collaboration. As for its funding priorities, Australia’s G’day Moon project is partnering with NASA to fly ‘an Australian-made, semi-autonomous rover to the Moon’ by 2026 as a step towards establishing a sustainable human presence on the moon and supporting future missions to Mars.

Australia has also created a space infrastructure fund worth $19.5 million. In October 2022, the government announced that it would spend nearly $1.2 billion on locally made satellites. Last month, Skyraft, an Australian space company, launched five air-traffic-management satellites aboard a Falcon 9 rocket as part of a larger constellation of 200 satellites that will be built over the next two years. Australia is also developing its own spaceports.

Australia’s 2019–2028 civil space strategy identifies four strategic pillars: ‘open the door internationally; develop national capability in areas of competitive advantage; ensure safety and national interest are addressed; and inspire and improve the lives of all Australians’. The strategy aims to create 20,000 jobs in the Australian space sector by 2030.

These are important pillars, but to bat successfully for the future space economy and signal to the wider international audience why they should consider partnering with Australia to build a democratic space order, Australia needs to set a space vision that embraces the changing discourse on space and focuses on its development and use. Space is now a critical domain in international strategic competition, and what happens there will help determine which country emerges as the lead nation in the 21st century. China signalled that shift in thinking in its 2015 military doctrine and 2021 white paper on space, as well as through President Xi Jinping’s speeches and policy statements. Without recognising this systemic change, Australia stands to lose out.

In this context, what should Australia’s space priorities be?

For one, Australia should set a space vision of development and utilisation. An Australian space policy should state that Australia is interested in investing in its space program because of the central role space plays in sustaining its critical infrastructure. It should make clear that this focus extends from low-earth orbit to the moon and beyond. This strategic mapping matters because if Australia wants to benefit from a US$1 trillion economy in space by 2040, scaling up its ambitions now by setting the right strategic framework and vision will create the institutions and develop the skills base and immigration policies necessary for building that space ecosystem.

Second, Australia should set a 10-year strategy focused on developing core space priorities. These priorities should include building a sector that benefits both its civilian space program and its national-security-related space apparatus. On the civil side, supporting projects that build supply-chain mechanisms in fields such as automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and large-scale mining will add to the nation’s attractiveness as a space power. Australia is a leader in mining, and taking lessons from its mining sector to outer space will leverage Australia’s strengths for the future space economy. On the national-security side, securing its space assets and being able to use its space systems and institutional structures to strengthen Australia’s defence preparedness are key.

Finally, Australia should take the lead in scaling up space cooperation through the Quad. Space will be a game-changer in the Indo-Pacific. Australia can play a pivotal role in bringing the members together to establish a Quad vision for a free and democratic space order. The four countries possess some of the most advanced space capabilities and have increased their investments in their civilian space programs. They have all established defence space agencies, space forces, space domain mission units and space commands, which could enable joint strategic threat assessments and interoperability between their space services. Such cooperation would not only address one of Australia’s space strategic priority of building international partnerships, but also ensure Australian leadership in crafting the rules-based international order in space. This is absolutely vital given the rise of China and its aspirations to write the rules of the road for space development and utilisation and to establish Chinese-led institutions and a permanent presence on the moon in cooperation with Russia.