Yes we’ve got a space agency – but our industry needs ‘Space Prize Australia’


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A launch like this could happen from Australian soil – with the right investment.
from www.shutterstock.com

Duncan Blake, University of Adelaide

The Australian Space Agency commenced operations on July 1 2018 with the ambition of tripling the Australian space economy by 2030.

But with the Australian government investment of A$41 million, we should not expect anything like NASA (which has a budget more than 2,000 times greater).

On the contrary, the impetus for growth must come from the Australian space industry itself – and that’s why “Space Prize Australia” can work.




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The space industry in Australia is currently characterised by many small, independent and disparate enterprises in niche areas. Surviving in an increasingly competitive global market will require collaboration, pooled experience, and teamwork. In addition to the space agency, we need something to galvanise Australian enterprises in the space industry.

But turning new technology into marketable commodities is a risky enterprise. Along that journey, a prize provides the opportunity to gain financial rewards for demonstrated achievement of milestones. It provides context to draw the attention of potential clients to the prospective commodities of Australian space start-ups.

In the model of previously successful prizes in aeronautics and space, Space Prize Australia could drive an Australian space launch – where the satellite, components, launch vehicle, launch facility, operation, ground control station and user applications all come from Australia.

The Great Air Race

On 19 March 1919 the government of Prime Minister Billy Hughes announced a £10,000 prize for the first successful flight from the UK to Australia in an aircraft manned by Australians, for the purpose of “stimulating aerial activity”.

It was known as the Great Air Race, and within five months of the announcement, six groups of former WWI airmen and their aircraft had formally registered to compete in the race.

Four Australians – Captain Ross Smith, Lieutenant Keith Smith, Sergeant Wally Shiers, and Sergeant James Bennett – won the prize:

Smith and his team landed at Fannie Bay Airfield in Darwin at 4.12 p.m. on December 10, 1919 and were instantly mobbed by almost the entire population of just under 1,500. Lieutenant Hudson Fysh, soon to be co-founder of the newly formed Qantas, was the first to greet the four airmen.

Their trip was a bold demonstration of what Australians could do. It connected us to the global economy and community, put Australia at the forefront of global aviation, and provided inspiration and energy for the Australian aviation industry.




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3, 2, 1…liftoff! The science of launching rockets from Australia


Other space prizes

The Great Air Race and others like it were the inspiration for more recent prizes, specifically in the space industry.

The Ansari X Prize was initiated in 1996 at a value of US$10 million. It was designed to reward the first non-government organisation to launch a reusable manned rocket into space twice within two weeks. The prize was won in 2004 by the Scaled Composites company led by Burt Rutan.

The Ansari X Prize resulted in the first non-government launch of a reusable rocket into space twice in two weeks.

Of greater significance is that it was estimated to have generated US$100 million in new technologies investments. The winning technology was licensed to the newly created Virgin Galactic, and Scaled Composites was later sold to aerospace and defence firm Northrop Grumman.

With an initial target date of March 31 2018, the Google Lunar X Prize included rewards totalling US$30 million for the first privately funded team to place a spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 metres and transmit high definition video and images back to Earth.

Interim prizes were awarded, but no team was able to meet the challenge by the deadline. Nevertheless, it is estimated that it generated over US$300 million in investments.

Let’s get started

Space Prize Australia is, at this stage, a proposal: no one has committed the funds. However, it has the capacity not just to galvanise our space industry enterprises, but also to inspire the Australian population broadly – just as the Great Air Race did.

It could start with crowd-funding – so that everyday Australians can have a stake in the Australian space industry – and with philanthropy from wealthier individuals or groups.

State governments may be interested. The states and territories have already demonstrated interest in and commitment to attracting space industry to their cities, and are seeking further opportunities to do so.




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Federal government agencies could chip in too. As well as the Australian Space Agency, Defence, Geoscience Australia, CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology would benefit from the development of an Australian capability to launch Australian satellites on Australian rockets from Australian sites and operate them from Australian facilities.

It is impossible to say how much could be raised as a prize pool from all those sources. But if it could be announced on 19 March 2019 – the 100th anniversary of the announcement of the Great Air Race – then AU$10m would seem apt. It’s a figure of comparable significance to the £10,000 prize offered in 1919, and would be sufficient to attract several competitive teams.

The world was captivated by the launch of Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket in February 2018.
blakespot/flickr, CC BY

Inspiration matters

Space Prize Australia would provide an opportunity for Australian space enterprises to demonstrate their technology, with financial and other support.

The prize would be a means to encourage and facilitate collaboration – potentially with benefits even for enterprises that don’t win.




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No launch from Australia: something missing from our plans for the new space race


The prize could be used, in part, to send the winners on a global tour, to meet with major clients, attend several major events and promote what Australia can do.

It would attract global attention and inspiration and it would showcase Australian space capability to the world.

The ConversationPerhaps most importantly, it could inspire every Australian girl, boy, man and woman who looks up at the sky at night and wonders what she or he can achieve.

Duncan Blake, PhD candidate, law and military uses of outer space, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

3, 2, 1…liftoff! The science of launching rockets from Australia



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Aircraft and missiles on display at Woomera, South Australia. Will we launch more rockets from here in the future?
from www.shutterstock.com

Ingo Jahn, The University of Queensland

Australia’s space agency will officially commence operations on July 1 2018.

As inaugural agency head Megan Clarke surveys our national capability in space, many states are putting forward strong cases regarding their existing relationships, human resources and infrastructure.

But from where should Australia launch rockets? Woomera in South Australia launched its first rocket in 1967, but in reality Australia could support multiple launch sites. And the closer to the equator, typically the better.

Let’s look at why.




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No launch from Australia: something missing from our plans for the new space race


Launching the payload

The first step in a space venture is to launch the payload (typically a satellite) and get it to stay in a suitable orbit without falling back to earth.

To achieve this, first the rocket must lift itself and the payload from the launch pad, through the lower levels of the atmosphere to altitudes greater than 100 km. This is achieved using a near vertical trajectory.

Once outside the atmosphere, the climb angle is reduced and the rocket starts to accelerate to reach its orbital velocity. It must travel at more than 7.8km/s (approx 28000 km/h) to stay in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). LEOs are orbits with an altitude of less than 2000km, and are used by the majority of small satellites.

The majority of the rocket fuel is used in this acceleration phase. The high final velocity is required to ensure the released payload stays in orbit.

However, by appropriate selection of launch site and launch direction, the required velocity to achieve LEO can be reduced.

The earth rotates one revolution per day in the westward direction, which results in a surface velocity of 0.46km/s (approx 1670 km/hr) at the equator. As you move north or south from the equator, this surface velocity decreases.

So, in the ideal case, launching westwards from the equator, the velocity to stay in LEO is reduced from 7.8km/s to approximately 7.3km/s.

As fuel required to attain these speeds is proportional to velocity squared, this is a substantial saving.




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Different launches for different orbits

This speed advantage is most important for spacecraft leaving earth and satellites going to geostationary orbit (a high earth orbit, where they rotate with earth and remain exactly above a fixed point on the ground). By launching from the equator in a purely westward direction they can fully utilise this speed advantage.

However, for small satellites aiming for LEO this has limited value. They would circle above the equator and could only view (or be visible from) a strip several hundreds of kilometres wide.

Instead most LEO launches are slightly to the north or south of the equator, so that the resulting orbit is inclined relative to the earth equatorial plane. From these orbits, after multiple passes, most of the earth (excluding the north and south pole) is visible.

A good example of such an orbit is the International Space Station, which can be tracked at ISS tracker.

International Space Station astronaut Ricky Arnold doing a spacewalk in June 2018.
NASA, CC BY

The exception to this are satellites in what are called sun synchronous and polar orbits, flying almost directly over the north and south pole. These require launches in the north or south direction and cannot utilise the speed advantage.




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Blue skies, no wind

The biggest motivator for building launch sites close to the equator is the the speed advantage and associated fuel savings mentioned above. Reductions in fuel mass allow increases in allowable payload mass.

This is reflected by the major well established spaceports: Cape Canaveral in Florida (USA), Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan (Russia), Kourou in French Guinea (Europe), and Jiuqan (China) all of which are located in the vicinity of the equator.

Looking ahead, there will be significant demand for future launch capacity to LEO either on inclined or sun synchronous orbits, as they are easy to reach and well suited for observation and communication satellites.

Secondary considerations for choosing launch sites are weather and climate related. Obviously blue sky days with little wind are desirable for launching, but – as demonstrated by Cape Canaveral in Florida – it is possible to operate a space-port in a region regularly visited by hurricanes. Nevertheless NASA cites weather as one of the main causes for launch delays.

Finally, it is desirable for launch sites to be close to towns and cities so that people have somewhere to live, and so that launch sites can contribute to the local community.




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The big global space agencies rely on Australia – let’s turn that to our advantage


Launching from Australia

Australia has a rich heritage in space related innovation, research, and collaboration, dating back to the NASA Mercury and Gemini programs.

Today there are several home-grown start-ups developing launch capabilities for access to space, such as Hypersonix and Gilmour Space Technologies (plus Rocketlab in New Zealand), all specifically targeting small satellite launches.

An evolution from this would be an Australian space port, which would further spur on these developments and help grow Australia’s space industry.

So far the majority of rocket launches in Australia have been conducted at the Woomera Prohibited Area, located in South Australia. An advantage of Woomera is that trajectories initially run over land. This allows easier communications with the rocket or flight experiment, making it ideal for rocket development. But this isn’t essential in space launches.

Being a large country, Australia can accommodate multiple launch sites. Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA) recently announced that they have secured land to start construction of the Arnhem Space Centre in the Northern Territory in 2018.

Similarly Australian Space Launch (ASL) is exploring locations in the Bowen region, North Queensland and Southern Launch have started site selection along the south coast.

Space launches from Australia can be expected in the not so distance future.
Having a national launch capability will significantly boost the growing space and satellite industry.


The Conversation


Read more:
Five steps Australia can take to build an effective space agency


Ingo Jahn, Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The big global space agencies rely on Australia – let’s turn that to our advantage



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The 35 m-diameter dish antenna of ESA’s deep-space tracking station at New Norcia, Western Australia.
europeanspaceagency/flickr , CC BY

Simon Driver, University of Western Australia

In the conversation around Australia’s space agency, the brand leaders – the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) – have had relatively little airplay.

Yet Australia is a critical host to both, and neither would be able to operate its fleet of deep space missions without ground-based support from Australian soil: Tidbinbilla (near Canberra) for NASA, and New Norcia (north of Perth) for ESA.

The launch of Australia’s space agency on July 1, 2018, provides the perfect opportunity for Australia to partner with ESA and NASA. We’re vital for the success of global space operations, and we can and should leverage this to Australia’s advantage.




Read more:
Five steps Australia can take to build an effective space agency


The Earth rotates, and Australia occupies a strategic geographic niche in the centre of the sparsely populated Indo-Pacific-Antarctic region. At any one time, Australia has domain over one third of the sky, and projecting outwards, one-third of space and one-third of the Universe. Ground-station support at Australian longitudes and latitudes is required for any remote mission, space station or colony wanting continuous communications.

Given our strategic importance, and NASA and ESA‘s collective investments in space assets, supported by A$1 billion in Australian-based ground-stations, it’s surprising that they have featured minimally in discussions thus far. The reason may stem from misconceptions that Australia cannot economically compete with NASA and/or ESA, or that deep space missions aren’t really relevant to Australia’s economy. There’s also the feeling that working with other nations in space may compromise Australia’s sovereignty.

I think these fears are misplaced, and we can easily address them to create advantages for Australia.

NASA and ESA have strong foundations in Australia.
Simon Driver, Author provided

Collaboration not competition

Almost every major space mission developed over the past few years by NASA and ESA has been collaborative, with multiple countries and agencies contributing components and subsystems.

Most famously, the Canadian Space Agency built the NASA shuttle’s robotic arm. UK and European companies have also provided instruments, sensors, and components to many NASA missions.

This mode of operation, based on collaboration not competition, is familiar to academia but less so to industry. It allows affordable engagement in massive projects, with the benefits that such engagement entails.

While it is true that Australia could never expect to build its own billion-dollar facility, there is every expectation that Australian industries can develop critical subsystems and become an active, collaborative participant in humanity’s expansion into space.




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Space activities create spin-offs

Almost every deep space mission is in essence a technology demonstrator, leading to multiple and diverse returns.

ESA now operates 12 business incubation centres across Europe, geared at redistributing the intellectual property generated within ESA into the market via small-to-medium startups. Through this model ESA has helped to establish more than 500 new European companies, developing products from health to manufacturing and sport to agriculture.

Both NASA and ESA routinely claim a 5:1 return on investment – these claims are difficult to verify, but are echoed in OECD reports.

A partnership with ESA in particular could lead to the establishment of an ESA-sponsored business incubation centre in Australia, and similarly engagement with NASA spin-offs.

Sovereign engagement

There’s no getting away from the fact that space is tied to defence, with Australia already spending around A$1 billion per year on space-related defence activities.

With space being famously just an hour’s drive away, monitoring our skies and what drifts overhead is important. However, with this comes a culture that fosters a sovereign “inward” outlook that is not necessarily conducive to open international collaboration. Can both a defence and an engaging mindset flourish within the same environment?

This last point highlights one of the key issues confronting the new space agency: it has multiple conflicting roles. It needs to stimulate grassroots industry in a globally competitive, fast-moving commercial environment; it needs to connect collaboratively with brand leaders like NASA and ESA; and it needs to help secure the overhead border and participate in international legislation and governance that protects the national interest.

An inevitable solution may be to accept that these functions are disparate, and best served by multiple nodes, distributed as best befits the capabilities that each state or territory has to offer.




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What we’re looking for in Australia’s Space Agency: views from NSW and SA


The case for Western Australia

This week, WA Minister for Science Dave Kelly launched a bid to host the Australian Space Agency, along with a report on that state’s space capability.

Perth is one of the only places on the planet where both NASA and ESA are actively engaged.

For example, NASA works with the the Intelligence and Autonomous division of Perth-based Australian oil and gas company Woodside.

Mining and space operators are looking to robotics in their routine activites.

WA also hosts the NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute at Curtin University.

ESA operates one of its three deep-space tracking stations and its primary launch tracking facility at New Norcia, WA. ESA has made it clear that it hopes to significantly expand its operations at New Norcia through the construction of a second 35-metre dish. During these discussions ESA has highlighted a desire to shift its relationship with Australia from a fairly minimal engagement model to a more formal partnership, starting with the opportunity to co-build the new antenna (a A$60 million investment into WA).

This collaborative engagement would be a clear win-win. For ESA – as it looks to expand its space-fleet and establish colonies on the Moon – it secures and cements its ground-operations into a nationally binding codependence, aligning ESA and Australia’s interests to ensure smooth operations into the indefinite future. On the Australian side, it opens the door to the creation of an Australian mission and operations control capacity, building on our strength in radio astronomy, and where we can start to realise the collaborative and commercial potential of our unique longitudinal monopoly. More shrewdly, any investment remains onshore, developing Australian-based infrastructure and creating real jobs and growth on the ground in rural WA.

In an ironic twist, the first customer wanting to use the new dish may be NASA, who, hitting capacity at Tidbinbilla, has reached out to Australia and ESA to support their next flagship mission (WFIRST). WFIRST is a deep wide-field near-infrared survey telescope, that will advance our understanding of dark energy, dark matter, and the search for habitable planets. It also has tremendous science synergy with the Square Kilometer Array, combing these data will massively amplify the science return from each alone.




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The science behind the Square Kilometre Array


Tri-agency agreement

It’s my belief that Australia should aim to create an off-the-bat tri-agency agreement between the newly formed Australian space agency, NASA, and ESA.

Currently around 3000 people are employed in NASA or ESA in ground-operations in the US or Europe. In due course – as the children born today populate not just the world but also potential colonies on the Moon, Mars and beyond – the international global community will be best served through comprehensive ground-station networks in North America, Europe, and Australasia leading to a comparable employment opportunity for Australians in Australia.

The ConversationAustralia, it would seem, has an important role to play. We have an opportunity to move from service provision to active partnership, and at the same time lean a little on the established leaders adept at industry engagement to kick-start our own aspirations and business start-ups. Engaging with NASA and ESA in a meaningful way has much to offer.

Simon Driver, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

No launch from Australia: something missing from our plans for the new space race



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Why no rocket launch plans from Australia?
Shutterstock/Gearstd

Melissa de Zwart, University of Adelaide

For the past 20 years, Australia has attempted to stake its claim in the lucrative commercial space industry.

In some aspects we have done quite well. There is no doubt that we have some of the most advanced ground systems in the world, and our open, relatively unpopulated geography makes the Australian continent ideal for operations such as the Square Kilometre Array.

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But despite our accomplishments on the ground, there has been very limited success for Australians wanting to get to space from our continent.




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As the details emerge on Australia’s new space agency, we (might) finally have lift-off


Early launch plans

The enactment of the Space Activities Act 1998 (Cth), one of the first examples of a domestic commercially focused space law, was prompted by the plans by Kistler Aerospace to establish a spaceport at Woomera.

That Act was focused on the operations that were taking place at the time. Australia was seeing significant interest from overseas entities who wanted to capitalise on our geography for launching rockets.

Fast forward to 2018, and no commercial launch operator has yet established themselves in Australia.

Rather, we have a burgeoning commercial interest in low-cost, high-volume cube sats for Internet of Things applications.

In 2015, the federal government announced a review of the Space Activities Act, recognising that regulation is just as significant a barrier for the space industry as the cost involved.

In early 2017, after a significant consultative period, the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS) recognised the need for reform, recommending that the Space Activities Act be replaced.

Rise of the space agency

In the intervening time, the government also announced the Space Capability Review and accepted its recommendation of the introduction of an Australian Space Agency.

That agency, to be headed by former CSIRO boss Megan Clark AC, will come into being on July 1, 2018. Many people consider the move to be a reaffirmation of Australia’s interest in the space domain.

More than a year after the legislative proposal paper was released by the DIIS, the Space Activities Amendment (Launches and Returns) Bill 2018 received its second reading in the House of Representatives on May 30, 2018, with little fanfare or coverage.

Despite the lengthy period of consultation and the initial statements that an entirely new Act would be drafted, this is a revision of the already existing legislation. It does little to inspire confidence in the government’s approach to an Australia commercial space industry.

Limited changes in legislation

This Bill purports to broaden regulatory frameworks, expand the scope of the Act, reduce costs to operators, and reduce barriers to entry.

In some ways, it will achieve these goals. There is a reduction of the insurance requirements for operators, from a world-leading A$750 million to a far more competitive A$100 million.

The bill facilitates the launch of space objects from aircraft, will recognise the prevalence of overseas markets for launch operations, and introduce the ability to launch rockets reaching an altitude less than 100km – Australia’s regulatory demarcation of outer space.




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Small sats are vital to Australia’s space industry – and they won’t be space junk


As noted above, the changes to the Act are dwarfed by the content that is merely left in place. Operators previously complained of an Act that is vague, difficult to navigate, and with prohibitive compliance costs.

Most of the changes embodied within the bill are merely in name only. A “Space Licence” becomes a “Facility Licence” with the only substantive reduction in pre-licence compliance being that the licence is no longer restricted to corporations.

The “Overseas Launch Licence” is renamed the “Overseas Payload Permit”, but is not matched with any substantive changes. This would see an Australian who wishes to launch a rocket overseas need a payload permit to launch their rocket.

Further, and of significant concern to commercial operators considering whether they should base their operations in Australia or move offshore, is the requirement for all permits to “include a strategy for debris mitigation”.

It is not clear what form this should take or how stringently this must comply, for example, with standards such as Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Advances overseas

If we look overseas there has been an abundance of new domestic laws that focus on promoting commercial activity while more actively aiming to protect the domain that is so important to everyday life.

Recent domestic enactments such as the British Space Industry Act 2018, the New Zealand Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017, and a plethora of US statutes recognise the need for on-orbit regulation.




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Lost in space: Australia dwindled from space leader to also-ran in 50 years


Under the United Nation’s Outer Space Treaty, a country is required to authorise and continually supervise non-government activities in outer space.

Australia’s existing Act, and this new Bill, fail to do this. Regulating activities while in space is the hallmark of modern domestic space law.

Finally, there is no reference to the new Australian Space Agency. It is anticipated that the agency will be the relevant regulatory body for the purposes of the Act and its role will be articulated in the yet to be developed rules.

A slight element of unease creeps into the space industry in the face of this disconnect. It is hoped that this does not reflect any ambivalence to the future role of such an Agency nor reflect a lack of commitment to Australia becoming a driving force in the space industry.

Another SpaceX launch from Florida – How long before crowds can watch a launch from Australia?
Flickr/Jill Bazeley, CC BY-NC

The ConversationJoel Lisk contributed to the research for this article.

Melissa de Zwart, Professor, Adelaide Law School, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As the details emerge on Australia’s new space agency, we (might) finally have lift-off



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A promise of new jobs from Australia’s new space agency.
Shutterstock/Harvepino

Andrew Dempster, UNSW

Details of Australia’s new space agency were released on Monday with the federal government’s response to the Report on the Review of Australia’s Space Industry Capability.

The Minister for Jobs and Innovation, Senator Michaelia Cash, also announced the appointment of Dr Megan Clark AC as the interim head of the agency.

Clark, a former head of the CSIRO, was chair of the Expert Review Group that led to the report on the nation’s space industry capability, so she is well placed to deliver on the recommendations that her own panel made.




Read more:
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Show me the money

First, let’s talk about money. Last week’s federal budget set aside A$41 million for the agency. That’s A$25 million for the agency itself and A$16 million for a space investment fund. This is well towards the bottom end of expectations and there will be limits to what can be achieved with that level of funding.

But we have already seen that this sector can be very productive. The Australian Space Research Program (ASRP), which ran from 2010 to 2013, was funded at A$40 million and produced a huge amount of good work such as making the huge Landsat satellite imagery archive more available for users, and testing a scramjet launcher.

Critically, though, that scheme did not put any assets in space, although subsequent work did.

The project I ran, for instance, developed a space-ready GPS receiver, which now flies on four differently configured cubesats in orbit. Another example is the start-up Myriota, which spun out of another ASRP project developing “Internet of Things” applications in space.

Other budget funding

What can also not be ignored in the federal budget is the A$260 million for a space-based augmentation system (SBAS) to improve satellite navigation and geospatial technologies.

This dwarfs the direct funding given to the space agency, but may present a good model for how to progress Australian space assets in future. The agency identifies need and solution, does some feasibility work, and facilitates the development.

But the bulk of the funding is recognised for what it really is: critical national infrastructure and is funded accordingly. What happens next should be an open and transparent bidding process, leading to an Australian system consistent with international standards, and bringing new capabilities.

What’s supported

The government’s response on the need for a space agency specifically deals with the nine recommendations of the report:

  • Develop a national industry strategy (supported)

  • Focus strategy on “leapfrog” emerging areas such as next generation sensors, communications, propulsion and launch systems (supported)

  • Establish the Australian Space Agency (supported)

  • Ongoing funding for agency (supported), industry development fund (noted), with the option to bring funding forward (supported in principle)

  • Extend treaties and international agreements (supported)

  • Work across government departments (supported in principle)

  • Facilitate regulation appropriate for Space 2.0 (supported in principle)

  • Engage with schools (supported in principle)

  • Engage closely with industry (supported).

For an electorate conditioned to expect governments to ignore recommendations from experts, this is an impressive amount of support, and bodes well for the space agency’s future.

The language of the announcement is enthusiastic: “A$300 million investment in space industry and technology”, “fantastic opportunity to triple the size of our domestic space industry”, “potential to create 20,000 jobs”.

The journey so far

It is instructive to reflect on how we got to this point from where we were ten years ago.

In 2008 the Australian Senate Standing Committee on Economics produced a report called Lost in Space – Setting a new direction for Australia’s space science and industry sector, in which it clearly and unambiguously called for the establishment of a space agency.

The following year the Rudd government launched the Australian Space Research Program, funded at A$40 million, which delivered many good outcomes, as mentioned above.

This momentum was then stopped with the release in 2013 of the Satellite Utilisation Policy, which stated:

(…) the Australian Government does not see an Australian satellite manufacturing or launch capability as an essential element of its approach to assured access to critical space-enabled services.

The anti-agency lobby, mostly based in Canberra, had intervened, and the agency idea was effectively dead. It was in that hostile environment in 2013 that I first laid out my case for the agency.

Another about-turn

Slowly, over the years, others such as the Space Industry Association of Australia, also came to make an argument.

Unable to resist the growth of space activity, the government set up the Expert Review Panel – chaired by Clark – whose report was released on Monday. But the space agency was announced last year at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide.

From a position where government policy was actively to discourage effort in satellites and launch five years ago, we now have support for a recommendation that:

(…) the Agency facilitates regulatory approval processes for small satellite launch facilities in Australia and the launch of Australian satellites overseas.

This is a huge turn-around.

Call it irony, call it the real world, but now some of those in Canberra who so forcefully resisted the agency, making misery for us advocates, are now saying that it must have its main presence in Canberra. Similarly, South Australia is lobbying strongly to host it.




Read more:
What we’re looking for in Australia’s Space Agency: views from NSW and SA


When I have pointed to the New South Wales submission to the Expert Review Panel, and the 17 ways in which NSW dominates the space sector in Australia (listed in the comments section here), I am not saying the agency must be in NSW – I’m saying that there is no case to favour either SA or the ACT.

The Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Kim Carr has already warned against “pitting states against each other”, and Raytheon Australia says that state rivalry for Defence work is getting “hysterical”.

The ConversationA national approach, with nodes in each state and territory, will be the most productive solution. All of the states have exciting things happening – we don’t want to mess that up.

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Small sats are vital to Australia’s space industry – and they won’t be space junk



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Small satellites are launched to Low Earth Orbit – and then eventually burn up.
from www.shutterstock.com

Michael Smart, The University of Queensland

Today the federal government released its response to the review of Australia’s Space Capability.

Among the details regarding the establishment of Australia’s first space agency, and a national space industry strategy, it is clear that small satellites will have a place in our space future.

The following recommendations were marked as “supported” or “supported in principle”:

  • Australia should […] take advantage of the global space technology paradigm
    shift towards constellations of miniaturised spacecraft for communications and Earth observations

  • […] the Agency [should facilitate] regulatory approval processes for small satellite launch facilities in Australia and the launch of Australian satellites overseas.

But won’t all these new satellites just make the current space junk problem even worse?

Luckily, the answer is no. And it’s due to the satellite “self-cleaning zone” that surrounds Earth.




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Trash or treasure? A lot of space debris is junk, but some is precious heritage


How satellites stay in orbit

For a satellite to remain in orbit around Earth, it must have a velocity of at least 7.9km per second, and must not drop below approximately 200km altitude in any part of its orbit.

If its velocity or its orbit is too low, it will be drawn back to Earth by a combination of gravity and atmospheric drag.

Another key aspect of a satellite’s orbit is its inclination relative to the Equator. Equatorial orbits – when the orbit is around the Equator – have zero inclination. Polar orbits, on the other hand, pass over both the north and south poles, and have an inclination of 90 degrees.

Other orbits sit at inclinations between 0° and 90°. The orbit of the international space station, for example, has an inclination of 51.6°. So it passes over the parts of Earth that are within 51.6° of latitude north and south of the Equator. Its orbit has an average altitude of 400km. (For comparison, the radius of the Earth is 6,378 km.)

The orbit of the International Space Station.

Low orbits for small satellites

Until about the year 2000 almost all useful satellites (ones that performed functions such as communications or weather observation) were big – weighing as much as 10,000kg. They also tended to be in orbits with altitudes greater than 2,000km.

This has changed due to the rapid development of micro-scale, low-power electronics that we all use every day in our mobile phones. Satellites can now weigh just hundreds of kilograms and perform the same function in terms of communications and earth observation.

There is also a movement (including in Australia) towards even smaller satellites called “cubesats”, weighing less than 20kg, which have limited capability and life. One implication of this smaller size is the need to be close to Earth.

Modern small satellites are all in Low Earth Orbit, with altitudes less than 1,000km. For example, a company called Planet has a constellation of about 200 satellites which supply images of almost anywhere on the planet on a daily basis.

Polar (blue) and inclined (red) orbits around Earth.

The self-cleaning zone

Despite the fact that the edge of Earth’s atmosphere is generally considered to be at 100km altitude, in reality it reaches much higher. In practice, any satellite in Low Earth Orbit will eventually be slowed down by impacts with air molecules and will return to Earth in a fiery re-entry. This may seem like a significant limitation for small satellites. But actually it is extremely helpful.

Due in part to their size limitation, most small satellite have a useful life of between one and five years. After this time a replacement satellite with the latest technology must be launched. If it wasn’t for the fact that Low Earth Orbit is a self-cleaning zone, the small satellite revolution would clog up the space around us with junk.

So when you hear about another planned constellation of hundreds of satellites, don’t worry too much. So long as they are in Low Earth Orbit, and most likely they will be, the Earth’s “vacuum cleaner” will clean up after us.

But what about the International Space Station? It is also in the Low Earth Orbit zone – so its orbit needs to be continuously maintained, which requires significant reserves of fuel. At some point, however, it will suffer the same fate as the much smaller Chinese space station Tiangong-1 and make a fiery re-entry.


The Conversation


Read more:
China’s falling space station highlights the problem of space junk crashing to Earth


Michael Smart, Professor of Hypersonic Aerodynamics, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Budget 2018: space agency details still scant – but GPS and satellite imagery funded


Anthony Wicht, University of Sydney

The Federal Government has announced $41 million of funding to kickstart the Australian space sector over the next four years.

The $41 million of funding is allocated across:

  • establishing the national space agency ($26 million over four years – $5.7 million in 2018/19, $9.8 million in 2019/20, $11.8 million in 2020/21 and $13.7 million in 2021/22)

  • international space investment ($15 million for grants over three years).

As expected, the funding establishes a national space agency, and ex-CSIRO head Dr Megan Clark is tipped to serve as the inaugural head.




Read more:
Infographic: Budget 2018 at a glance


The surprise in the budget is the around $260 million investment in applying satellite data to Australia – mostly in precise positioning but also in satellite imagery.

The applications of space technology cover:

  • $225 million for precise positioning technology that makes GPS signals accurate to centimetres, not metres, which unlocks efficiency and automation possibilities in agriculture, mining and transport

  • $36.9 million to improve “Digital Earth Australia”, a platform that assembles global satellite images of Australia in a user-friendly and publicly accessible way.

End to ambivalence

This budget marks the first time Australia has had an official space agency, and puts an end to decades of Australian ambivalence towards civilian space.


Timeline of key events in Australia’s space activities from 1957-2018: click on arrows at right and left to go back and forth.

https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=1XyVlDLjkmySON9coL-C6aQawqPOUakVkFDWwcgpPwzs&font=Default&lang=en&initial_zoom=2&height=650

Adapted with permission from Kerrie Dougherty – this timeline first appeared in her review of Australia’s space activities in 2017.


The emphasis on industry shows the agency’s mission is to enable the growing Australian space sector to strut its stuff on a global stage.

The space industry is worth more than A$400 billion per year, and plays an increasingly vital link in civil and military activity.

The government’s concept of a space agency is as an economic and national security play – it is not aimed as a catch-up attempt to lavishly funded international peers like NASA.

With this budget, the government is trying to walk a fine line between enabling successful Australian businesses in the high-tech space game, and creating a sector dependent on government largesse.




Read more:
Space Agency for Australia: here’s why it’s important


Four key aims of the space agency

The $41 million over four years is about the minimum viable amount to start towards these goals. Sensibly spent, it is enough to achieve the core aims of an Australian agency.

International credibility for Australian space: Australian space businesses bidding for international work dread the question “why doesn’t Australia have an agency?” as it’s often the prelude to “without an agency it’s just too risky for us to work together”. A funded agency takes this objection off the table and levels the playing field.

Support for Australian business: Early-stage grants to help businesses prove concepts – for example, to build a launch-ready small satellite – are within the means of this budget. This will help Australian startups cross the “valley of death” from concept to export-ready, space-tested hardware.

Federal and international coordination: A mix of state and federal agencies have a hand in civilian space activities; a funded agency will help impose order domestically and serve as a focal point for international engagement with other space agencies.

Long term strategic planning for the sector: Space is a long lead-time business. The agency will be responsible for strategic planning for the sector. The money will give its plans clout and an ability to nudge startups and universities into growth areas through funding allocations.

This is not the sort of funding for an agency that will be hiring engineers and building its own spacecraft. Most of the money will be spent in partnerships with commercial companies and universities to help get new ideas and good companies off the ground.

Some will be spent with international agencies to give Australia a “seat at the table” and a chance to bid for international contracts. These partnerships are the likely role of the $15 million earmarked for space investment.

The budget is light on detail and there are many unanswered questions, including:

  • what areas will Australia focus on?

  • where will key parts of the agency be located?

  • what will the future of the agency look like after the four years?

The ConversationI look forward to seeing these details in the near future.

Anthony Wicht, Alliance 21 Fellow (Space) at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.