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Australia’s moonshot

Posted By on September 26, 2019 @ 06:00

In another sign that the government is serious about supporting new Australian endeavours in space, the Australian Space Agency and NASA have inked an agreement covering Australian participation in the US ‘Artemis’ project to return astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024. The partnership was announced during the state visit by Prime Minister Morrison to the US last week. The return to the moon is a key stepping-stone in the US government’s plan to send crewed missions to Mars sometime in the 2030s.

Australia’s participation is an activity that falls under the ‘moonshot’ goal noted in the Australian Space Agency’s civil space strategy, released in April. ‘Moonshot’ missions were emphasised as important for building industry and international partnerships and for supporting the growth of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) in education to sustain Australian space activities in coming decades.

As part of the agreement, the Australian government is investing $150 million over five years in boosting the Australian space industry’s capacity to serve as a key supplier to the US space sector. That investment will be an opportunity for continuing the expansion of Australia’s space sector and asserting our role internationally as a new space power. It will contribute towards the Australian Space Agency realising its objective of tripling the size of the sector to 30,000 jobs by 2030.

So, what might Australia contribute to the US return to the moon, and eventual missions to Mars?

As noted in the civil space strategy, Australia’s expertise in robotics and automation—stemming from the mining sector—will make it a valuable partner for the US on the moon. Going back to the moon in the next decade won’t just be a ‘flags and footprints’ exercise. Looking beyond the planned landing of Artemis 3 in 2024, the objective for NASA is to establish a permanent human presence on the lunar surface by 2028 over 12 Artemis missions.

Establishing and sustaining lunar base facilities will require robotic systems that can be remotely operated either from the lunar ‘Gateway’ mini–space station in lunar orbit, or potentially from earth. Under some circumstances, those operations could be managed directly from Australia. Humans and robots will be working side by side on the lunar surface, and Australian companies can contribute directly to those operations.

Our potential to play a central role in this area doesn’t just end on the moon. Extracting resources from near-earth asteroids—which can be reached from the moon more easily and cheaply than they can from the earth’s deep gravity well—is a task for robots, not humans. Imagine companies such as BHP and Rio Tinto mining an asteroid—or lunar regolith—for valuable metals, minerals, gases and liquids.  There would be no need for people in spacesuits driving diggers—robots conducting the operations could be managed from Australia. Our use of robots and autonomous systems in terrestrial mining can be equally applied in space.

Australia can also contribute to the Artemis project by supporting Australian companies undertaking ‘leapfrog R&D’, which could then generate sustained growth across the entire space industry sector. Private companies, as well as government agencies such as the CSIRO and Geoscience Australia, and the Defence Science and Technology Group, are engaged in research and development in areas that could directly support Artemis—including advanced rocket technology, new high-tech materials and space medicine.

The return to the moon in the 2020s, and the prospect of crewed missions to Mars in the 2030s, will generate technological innovation, especially given the heavy involvement of a broad range of commercial space companies. In this sense Artemis is very different from the Apollo mission, which was almost exclusively a NASA-run effort, supported by major aerospace primary contractors.

Artemis, by contrast, can fully exploit technological innovations coming from the expanding commercial space sector—including small commercial space start-ups. Australia’s space industry companies need to move quickly to benefit from the government’s decision to support Artemis, because the return to the moon is set to be just the beginning of a long period of growth in human space activity.

Continuous commercial support will be required for lunar bases, and for sustaining cost-effective, regular and safe transport from the earth to the moon. Don’t expect large commercial space ventures such as SpaceX and Blue Origin to cede this opportunity to NASA. Although NASA is clearly taking the lead with Artemis, it will ultimately depend on commercial support from a variety of companies, both US and foreign. That’s where Australia’s space industry sector can play a critical and profitable role.

The challenges become more apparent as the next big goal—getting to Mars—looms closer. Human missions to Mars will be an order of magnitude more complex than a return to the moon, given the distance involved. Orbital dynamics prevent a rapid transit and equally rapid return (for those who like equations, the complexity of earth–Mars transfer is explained here). Australia’s space industry can play a role even here, through investment in leapfrog R&D sectors, particularly biomedicine to treat the physical and psychological effects of extended spaceflight on humans.

What about direct involvement of Australian astronauts? Is there a case for Australians to participate in future lunar and Mars missions? Yes.

The next generation of would-be Australian astronauts are in secondary school (in terms of getting to the moon), or maybe yet to be born (for Mars), but it’s vital that the Australian Space Agency, and Australia’s commercial space sector, remain open to the prospect. One of the agency’s key goals, as set out in its civil space strategy, is to ‘inspire’ so that it encourages the future workforce and engages the nation as a whole. That can be done most successfully by instilling excitement and interest in younger generations. Promoting STEM in education, and what the agency refers to as ‘moonshot’ missions’, should be a key part of that effort.

The opportunity for an Australian in the 2020s or 2030s to stand on the lunar surface and gaze at the earth in much the same way Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did in 1969 is not fanciful. Nor is the possibility of Australian astronauts participating in an international mission to Mars in the 2030s. The moment when a young Australian realises such a dream would be truly inspirational for the nation.

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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australias-moonshot/

[1] agreement: https://www.industry.gov.au/news-media/australian-space-agency-news/australia-to-support-nasas-plan-to-return-to-the-moon-and-on-to-mars

[2] Artemis: https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/america_to_the_moon_2024_artemis_20190523.pdf

[3] civil space strategy: https://publications.industry.gov.au/publications/advancing-space-australian-civil-space-strategy-2019-2028.pdf

[4] permanent: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-commits-to-long-term-artemis-missions-with-orion-production-contract

[5] Gateway’: https://www.nasa.gov/topics/moon-to-mars/lunar-gateway

[6] reached: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/space-2060-and-australia/

[7] mining: https://www.digitalpulse.pwc.com.au/asteroid-prospecting-new-space-frontier/

[8] dynamics: https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/basics/chapter4-1/

[9] here: https://www-istp.gsfc.nasa.gov/stargaze/Smars1.htm