A strategy for Australia in space
18 Jul 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Australia uses satellites to support national defence, economic, and scientific activities, but isn’t a ‘space power’ that can provide independent space systems for national needs. The Department of Industry, Innovation and Scientific Research’s 2015 ‘State of Space Report’ and Australian Satellite Utilisation Policy limits Australia to providing ground infrastructure, and establishing regulatory frameworks to use other states’ satellites and foreign commercial space capabilities. The 2016 Defence White Paper and Integrated Investment Program goes a bit further, and suggests ‘potential investment in space-based sensors’ for the mid-2020s to the late-2030s but the language is vague, and funding for such a capability is proverbial ‘low-hanging fruit’.

A 2015 review of Australian Space activities shows that Australia is a consumer of the end product. There’s little or no involvement in satellite construction or integration, and Australia doesn’t provide launch services (see table on p. 58 of the review). There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach. Yet the times are changing. The private sector of space is growing by leaps and bounds, with innovative young companies bursting with new ideas and bold visions that increasingly challenge technological dominance of national space programs. Technologies are changing with the times, with ‘Space 2.0’ emphasizing smaller, more capable satellites produced cheaply through innovation in manufacturing, then replaced more rapidly in a manner akin to software evolution from Silicon Valley IT start-ups. In this approach, Cubesats can be built for a fraction of the cost of traditional high-end satellites, launched in swarms, and networked to provide useful space support for defence or other national civil or scientific endeavours. Andrew Davies has explored the benefits of an Australian surveillance capability, suggesting ‘Australia could develop an indigenous satellite capability to augment data collected by allied or commercial satellites’. In the seven years since Davies assessed the case for four satellites, each costing around AUD$600 million, the transformation implicit in Space 2.0 suggests Australia could instead build swarms of networked cubesats and integrate them with the Triton UAS, to facilitate a broad-area maritime surveillance capability at a lower cost.

Advances in satellite technologies are being matched by advances in launch systems, most notably re-usable space launch capabilities (here, here, here and here). These will potentially drive down the cost of accessing space for a broader range of customers and could herald a transformational ‘step-change’ in accessing space, with SpaceX suggesting up to a 50% price reduction on a fully expendable launch. The challenge will be managing cost and complexity of refurbishment for recovered boosters, addressing fuel to payload cost ratio, and also sustaining a high enough launch rate to make the economics of reusable rockets work. Future Australian space policy could assess the benefits of providing a southern hemisphere siteclose to the equatorfor launch and recovery of those vehicles as part of an international partnership, and in doing so, lay the basis for a local space launch capability.

If government values innovation, it should review current policy settings on space, and consider future steps. This could suggest two clear potential paths forward on space, and a third that’s implied. Firstly, government can maintain the current approach that emphasises comparative advantage and avoids risk. To borrow a term from cosmology, this is a ‘steady-state’ future—more of the same with little or no government investment into promoting an expanding commercial space sector in Australia. In that model Australia decides what product it needs and continues to consume what’s provided to it, it negotiates access and establishes the ‘ground segment’ to manage the data.

Alternatively government might support a ‘big bang’ strategy that actively develops an Australian commercial space sector. This process has already taken a step forward with a decision to review (and here) the 1998 Space Activities Act to ensure that innovation and investment isn’t stifled through outdated regulation. It seems sensible that whatever path Australia chooses, clearing up and discarding excess regulation is a good step.

A ‘steady state’ approach minimises risk and cost, but doesn’t necessarily encourage a lucrative commercial space sector within Australia, and risks Australia falling further behind in a booming global market. Conversely ‘Big bang’ is riskier because Australia must compete with that global space market, but is more in line with government policies to promote innovation, and the opposition’s commitment to science and technology. If we’re to compete, it’s important to do so with haste, or be at permanent disadvantage with regional competitors.

But private industry should not merely wait for government to take the lead. That opens a third option. The real advances, epitomised when SpaceX successfully lands a Falcon 9 booster after launching a satellite, is when private industry takes the lead. Government can choose simply to step back and let the market drive our space program.

The time has come for Australia to embrace new thinking on space. More of the same is a safe bet, but frankly, is not that inspiring. In a recent co-authored article with Brett Biddington that considers our future in Space, Astrobiology Professor Malcolm Walter sums up the importance of inspiration, innovation and vision:

‘In Australia, pragmatism seems often to override vision, to our detriment. Seeking to inspire might seem like an intangible pursuit, but it is also a powerful agent for change. It nurtures education that generates innovation that builds an economy. None of this just happens.’