Space 2.0 in the Indo-Pacific
24 Jun 2019|

Space has traditionally been the domain of the great powers, and the cost of space technologies has ensured that smaller states like Australia depended on those countries for satellite coverage. But that’s changing rapidly. A renewed global focus on space has led to the development of new technologies and a major shift in the way states think about space.

This new vision of space and its potential (known as ‘Space 2.0’) is propelled by commercial investment and a ‘small but many’ approach to satellite technologies. It emphasises low-cost, responsive systems and interoperability to create versatile satellite constellations. Low-cost systems have facilitated the entry of smaller states into the space domain—what’s been called the ‘democratisation of space’. The global space industry experienced a 100% increase in total spacecraft deployments in 2017, underpinned by a 200% increase in commercial spacecraft.

The effects of this booming global space industry are being felt in the Indo-Pacific (see map below). In Australia, we’ve seen the creation of the Australian Space Agency with a mandate to promote the growth of the civil industry and develop a regulatory framework. Through Space 2.0, Australia can establish itself as a global hub for space technology by supporting research and development in space-related fields, such as micro- and nanosatellites, robotics, synthetic biology and ‘leapfrog’ technologies. Because 90% of our defence capabilities rely on space technologies, our security depends heavily on our ability to leverage those technologies.

Space 2.0 in the Indo-Pacific

A trend towards indigenously produced small satellites is evident throughout the region. Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam have all committed to developing space technologies. Bilateral and multilateral collaboration is the driving force behind these rapid advances in space science and engineering. After collaborating with the Technical University of Berlin on its first microsatellite (LAPAN-A1) in 2007, Indonesia piggybacked its first two indigenously manufactured satellites (LAPAN-A2 and A3) on launches from India in 2013 and 2014. Indonesia has a plan to develop launch capabilities over the next 21 years and expects to launch its first indigenous rocket this year or next.

Thailand is taking a similar approach. Its Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency is partnering with Airbus to build the THEOS-2 geo-information system. Under the partnership agreement, Thai engineers will be involved in developing an integrated geo-information system, two earth-observation satellites and a ground segment. Thailand aspires to one day become a producer and exporter of small and microsatellites.

Australia shouldn’t sit on the sidelines and watch the space industry boom around it. Instead, we need to engage proactively with our neighbours.

While Space 2.0 has lowered the price of admission to space, not all states are developing their own capabilities. Brunei, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands don’t have the resources or expertise to develop their own domestic capabilities but will still be able to use the competitive commercial industry to lower the cost of access to space technologies. This presents both an opportunity for the Australian space industry and a challenge for the defence industry.

Competition in the region is thriving. China is already exporting satellites to developing countries and signalling plans to expand the market as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. A network of Chinese communications and imaging satellites operating over the Asia–Pacific would pose a challenge for regional security. With wide coverage and significant influence, China’s assertiveness can only be expected to grow. So, Australia needs to maintain a competitive edge and take a whole-of-government approach to ensure that our national interests are bolstered, not threatened, by the growth of the space industry.

Working with our neighbours to develop satellite technologies, launch capabilities and land-based systems would help to increase commercial competition, paving the way for international space investment and establishing a more robust defence capability. To achieve that, we’ll need to invest and signal our clear commitment to the development of space technologies. The recent release of the Australian civil space strategy, which notes the need to engage in international partnerships, is a step in the right direction. However, the strategy is mostly based on engagement with established Western states and barely touches on the opportunities in the Asia–Pacific.

Space 2.0 has provided the foundations for a booming global industry in our region and offers Australia an opportunity to readjust its trajectory, step up and lead the way. If we want to bolster the security of the region through space technology and pave the way for industry, we need to pursue closer collaboration with our neighbours now, not in two, three or 10 years.