Just one small step for Australia’s space industry when a giant leap is needed


Andrew Dempster, UNSW

An expert review of the Australian space industry’s capabilities to participate in a global market was announced last week by the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Arthur Sinodinos. He said the aim is to “develop a long-term plan to grow this important and exciting sector” and report in March 2018.

Interestingly, the words “space agency” do not appear in the announcement, but this was addressed later when the minister spoke to the media.

The space community had been expecting an announcement of this sort for some time. Many expected one to be made for maximum impact at or near the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) to be held in Adelaide in September, when Australia’s space community will be on show to the world.

Another failure to launch

Many also expected that the announcement would be of the establishment of an agency, rather than yet another committee and review of the industry. There seems to be at least one of these every year, with the past year alone seeing the Space Activities Act review, the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) white paper and the annual State of Space report.

That frustration was voiced by the Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Labor Senator Kim Carr, when he said Australia “desperately” needed to move towards having its own space agency.

This is a little rich, as Labor had the opportunity to go to the last election with a comprehensive space policy that included an agency, but failed to do so (like every major party). The 2016 NSW Labor Party Conference event asking if Australia should have a space program (at which I presented) did not lead to substantive action.

In commissioning a review that will not report until next March, the federal government has effectively ensured that there will be no Australian space policy of any merit to discuss at September’s IAC conference.

Australia will not have a space agency, or even a plan for one, when the eyes of the space world are on us. When all that international attention has disappeared next year, the idea could be shelved yet again.

That all sounds rather negative, and may imply an expectation that nothing substantial will happen as a result of this new review.

I have been in the space sector in some capacity since the 1980s and, despite there being many strong reasons (at least 10) to support an agency, I’ve seen this type of thing happen over and over again without result.

Reasons to act now

But this time around there are real grounds to expect that things should be different. So what are they?

First, there is what you might call the “Rocket Lab” effect. When a company started preparing to launch rockets from New Zealand, the logical reaction from the government there was to create an agency, effectively trying to build an industry around this project. In other words, the innovators forced a response from government.

Arguably, this effect is stronger in Australia. Several startup companies are effectively putting the same type of pressure on the Australian government. Two that recently achieved early funding are Fleet in South Australia (doing the “internet of things” from space) and Gilmour Space Technologies in Queensland (launching small satellites). There are at least a dozen others.

Second, an Australian space agency makes more sense now than ever before, with the emergence of what has been called “Space 2.0”. The old paradigm of big, expensive satellites and big, clunky agencies has been disrupted by easier access to space and the increasingly commercial use of space. Australia can leapfrog the old way of doing things, because most local start-ups are working on Space 2.0 applications.

The small satellite market causing this disruption is growing at more than 20% per year and will be worth about US$7 billion by 2020. Nanosatellites or “cubesats” are fundamental to this growth.

Recently, three cubesats deployed from the International Space Station were the first Australian-built satellites in 15 years. The story of my team establishing contact with two of them after they were initially silent was a great feat of engineering.

So Australia is already participating in Space 2.0 – we have active nano-satellites launched and innovative companies funded.

Third, the committee appointed by Sinodinos has a healthy number of members not aligned with traditional agency thinking. These include David Williams from CSIRO. He set up the UK agency, which is a good model for Australia to follow given it is focused on industry growth.

Also on the committee are local entrepreneurs Jason Held (Saber Astronautics) and Flavia Tata Nardini (Fleet), who run small companies with new approaches to space.

The absence of large multinationals has been lamented by some commentators, but not by me. The Communications Alliance is a voice for Australian’s communications industry, including those involved in the satellite industry, and its chief executive John Stanton was quoted in a Communications Day newsletter saying the review was “remarkably light on industry participants”.

In any case, large companies are represented by Michael Davis of the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA), which lists almost 400 Australian organisations as members.

Fourth, most of the case for an agency has already been made by the SIAA in its recent white paper. This does much of the new review committee’s work for it, and allows it to use the time between now and March to try to define the role and structure that any agency will take.

Fifth, the current government has already shown a willingness to facilitate growth in the sector by reforming the Space Activities Act. Although the Act is primarily regulatory, and its reform is an exercise in removal of red tape, the move will genuinely make it easier to run space businesses in Australia.

Finally, this industry attracts innovators like almost no other – Elon Musk’s efforts to get to Mars are only one high-profile example.

There is a groundswell of activity right here, right now, with a critical mass of brilliant young minds developing a 21st-century space industry, but needing supportive infrastructure to make it happen.

In other words, the environment and timing are right for the establishment of an Australian space agency. This review is just one small step towards that goal. At least it’s in the right direction, but is it necessary at all?

The ConversationWith Labor’s only complaint being that an agency is not being launched soon enough, bipartisanship on the issue seems assured. So why not take the giant leap?

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.

As the world embraces space, the 50 year old Outer Space Treaty needs adaptation



File 20170706 25269 ng2357
A lot has changed since the Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967.
NASA Image and Video Library

Duncan Blake, University of Adelaide and Steven Freeland, Western Sydney University

The Outer Space Treaty (OST) is the framework multilateral treaty that establishes the principal rules regulating the exploration and use of outer space. Established in 1967, it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

But now we need an update. While the fundamental principles set out in the treaty are vitally important to the peaceful and orderly use of outer space, the pace of development of space-related technology – which allows for activities far beyond the contemplation of those that put the treaty together – means that some activities in space may fall between the cracks.

50 years of OST

For 50 years, the OST has largely allowed for a consideration of the interests of both the space “powers” and the space “have-nots”.

In 1967, the Cold War superpowers were continuing to develop inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of destroying entire cities and taking the lives of all their inhabitants. In that context, the OST set a delicate balance between the strategic interests of the US and the USSR in space. At the same time, the OST elevated the interests of humanity in outer space above the parochial interests of individual states. Appearing in person for the signing of the treaty, US President Lyndon Johnson said:

This is an inspiring moment in the history of the human race.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and USSR Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin shaking hands at the signing ceremony for the Outer Space Treaty, January 27, 1967.
Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, via Digital Public Library of America, CC BY

Indeed, the treaty has (thus far) successfully created an environment that has prevented warfare in space. Its binding provisions are not only legally defensible, but have also historically reinforced an overwhelming political dynamic to refrain from overt military action in space.

The treaty is, however, expressed in broad statements of principle; such as, that the exploration and use of outer space “shall be the province of all mankind” – or “humanity” in more gender-enlightened times. This was necessary in the geopolitical context. Broad statements of principle were sufficient to regulate relations between space-faring states in the first several decades of space exploration and use, while allowing some flexibility to those same states.

However, as space has become more accessible and commercialised, those broad statements of principle are, in our view, still necessary but no longer sufficient. They need to be supplemented – but not replaced.

Adapting the OST

At a time of heightened global strategic tensions, relative insularity and increasingly diverse vested interests, the prospect of new, legally-binding instruments seems remote, at least in the short term. Even the common mistrust that united space powers in the negotiation of the OST in 1967, is today fractured by uncertainty about the promises, prevalence and purposes of great powers and their allies. This is particularly the case with respect to an impending sense among some observers – which we do not necessarily accept – of the “inevitability” of armed conflict in space.

So, where could we find the mandate to champion the cause of new legal instruments to supplement the broad principles of the OST? To adapt global space governance to the needs of the next 50 years?

It is future generations who have the strongest claim to preserve and even improve the benefits from the peaceful exploration and use of outer space over the coming decades. They have at least a moral – and, arguably, legal – mandate to insist that states seriously consider supplementing the OST. And the opportunity for the next generation to state their claim is right here, right now.

IAC 2016 was held in Guadalajara, Mexico. The site for IAC 2017 is Adelaide, Australia.
International Astronautical Federation

In late September 2017, Adelaide will host the largest space-related meeting on the annual calendar – the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC). In more recent years, there has been a companion conference just prior to the IAC – the Space Generation Congress (SGC). This was initiated on the request of states through the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to represent the interests of the next generation in outer space.

At the SGC, a group of young Australians will lead a working group of delegates from across the globe, to develop and propose a set of supplementary protocols to the OST, in order to adapt global space governance to the needs of the next 50 years.

Existential challenges

Crafting instruments that address the current and foreseeable future challenges in global space governance will not be easy. The challenges are not just big, they’re existential.

Stephen Hawking recently suggested that humanity must become an inter-planetary species to escape climate change on this planet, which threatens to make the Earth environment increasingly incompatible with human existence.

Climate change is not the only threat – an asteroid impact could wipe out our species, and one of the regular solar events in the life of our Sun could severely disrupt satellites and terrestrial networks and electronics. We can’t control that, although we could do something about human-generated space debris, which may make valuable Earth orbits unusable for millennia to come.

But who should be responsible for space debris and how? What laws should apply to humans living on another planet? Who has legal authority to take timely action to divert an asteroid on behalf of the whole planet?

Furthermore, if states continue to develop means of space warfare, in addition to the many pre-existing means of warfare on Earth, we might still be the authors of our own demise. But how do you regulate “space weapons” without undermining “the great prospects opening up before mankind as a result of man’s entry into outer space” (the opening words of the OST)?

Economic implications

The global space industry is already worth over US$330 billion and generates hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Even in Australia, a 2015 report commissioned by the Government estimated that the space industry here generated $3 billion to $4 billion in revenue. Possible future commercial mining of the Moon and asteroids potentially involves trillions of dollars.

Furthermore, space is becoming democratised – accessible to all – through small satellite and small launcher technology. Can we find ways to share the benefits of outer space, as well as the responsibility for preserving it?

The ConversationThe working group at the SGC face a difficult task in articulating new rules to supplement the broad principles set out in the OST. However, they represent important stakeholders who, more than any state, have a moral mandate to champion changes to adapt the OST to the needs of the next 50 years. We wish them great success.

Duncan Blake, PhD candidate, law and military uses of outer space, University of Adelaide and Steven Freeland, Dean, School of Law and Professor of International Law, Western Sydney University

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

Welcome to the family, Pluto


Tanya Hill, Museum Victoria

What an amazing time for space exploration. The picture of the solar system from my childhood is now complete, as seen in this great family portrait produced by Ben Gross, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and distributed via twitter.

I love this image because it shows each world in close-up, using some of the latest pictures from space exploration. As we celebrate seeing Pluto for the first time, it’s remarkable to think that this completes a 50 year task.

It has been NASA that has provided the first close-up views of all these worlds. Here’s the rundown:

  • Mercury: Mariner 10 (1973)
  • Venus: Mariner 2 (1962)
  • Mars: Mariner 4 (1965)
  • Jupiter: Pioneer 10 (1973)
  • Saturn: Pioneer 11 (1979)
  • Uranus: Voyager 2 (1985)
  • Neptune: Voyager 2 (1989) and
  • Pluto: New Horizons (2015)

But science never stays still. When New Horizons left Earth in January 2006, Pluto was a planet. Later that year an important reassessment was made of the Solar System and Pluto became the first of the dwarf planets.

The ‘Not-Planets’

The Planetary Society’s Senior Editor, Emily Lakdawalla, has teamed together the ‘Not-Planets’. These are the close-up views, shown to scale, that have been captured of the largest moons, asteroids and dwarf planets.


Montage by Emily Lakdawalla. The Moon: Gari Arrillaga. Other data: NASA/JPL/JHUAPL/SwRI/UCLA/MPS/IDA. Processing by Ted Stryk, Gordan Ugarkovic, Emily Lakdawalla, and Jason Perry.

It clearly shows that there are many diverse and interesting worlds to explore beyond the eight planets of our solar system.

New Horizons is the first spacecraft to start exploring the Kuiper Belt, an icy realm of objects orbiting 5 billion kilometres or more beyond the sun. It’s the chance to observe a dwarf planet, something distinct from the terrestrial planets and the gas giants.

It was in 1992 that astronomers discovered Pluto was not alone. The first Kuiper Belt Object, designated 1992 QB1, is a 100-kilometre sized object that orbits well beyond Pluto.

Now more than 1,000 objects have been detected in this realm, and the belt likely contains many more. Most are small compared to Pluto, but there are some stand-outs such as Quaoar, and the dwarf planets Eris, Makemake and Haumea.

Don’t forget to phone home

The suspense of the mission has certainly been high. To maximise the amount of data that New Horizons could collect, the spacecraft did not communicate with Earth for the duration of the flyby. As described by Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman, it was the moment when you let your child free.

The team had prepared New Horizons, told it what work needed to be done and in that radio silence they had to trust that all would go to plan.

Just before 11am today (AEST), New Horizons checked in – showing it to be the perfect child to the relief of its many anxious “parents”. It was only a brief phone home, but in that short time the scientists confirmed that all telemetry was spot-on, the spacecraft followed the path that had been set for it and there were no error messages recorded on any of the systems.

No data was transferred in that brief connection, but it was established that the main computer system, which records all the data collected by the spacecraft, showed the expected number of segments had been used. In other words, data had been collected.

We will soon see Pluto and Charon in even higher resolution. Their geology will be mapped, the surface compositions and temperatures will be measured, atmospheres will be probed and new discoveries will be made.

A love note from Pluto

It’s also been wonderful to see the public become so enthralled with the latest image from Pluto. Humans are incredibly good at spotting patterns and it seems that Pluto wears his heart on his sleeve for us.

I’m also equally intrigued to discover that the smooth part of Pluto’s heart is made of carbon monoxide ice. This was already known from ground-based observations, except never before seen in such detail. It’s reassuring to have a good match between the old and new data.

But look again … is it a heart or something entirely different stealing the show?

The Conversation

Tanya Hill is Honorary Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Senior Curator (Astronomy) at Museum Victoria.

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