Want to make social distancing even more effective? It’s about time (as well as space)


Mike Lee, Flinders University; Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Flinders University, and Craig Dalton, University of Newcastle

While the world waits for an effective vaccine against COVID-19, we are relying heavily on social distancing – perhaps better termed “physical distancing” – to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Physical distancing works because COVID-19 spreads most efficiently when groups of people come into close contact, although there is some evidence the virus can also spread by touching contaminated surfaces.

Modelling suggests Australia can effectively suppress transmission and control the outbreak only if at least 80% of people practise good physical distancing.

At least 80% compliance with physical distancing measures is required to beat Covid-19.
Mikhail Prokopenko/Univ. Sydney (extra labels added)

Government advice for implementing physical distancing has mainly urged people to isolate themselves in space: staying at least 1.5 metres apart, working from home, avoiding gatherings, and minimising travel.

However, effectively separating people in space is extremely challenging. Different people still need access to the same essential locations, such as shops, workplaces and health care facilities.

Temporal distancing

But physical distancing can be done in two ways: spatial distancing (separating people in space) and temporal distancing (separating people in time). Temporal distancing is an easy concept to grasp. Any time we take an early lunch to beat the crowds, or catch a later bus to avoid the commuter crush, we are using temporal distancing.

People are allowed entry into the same spaces – they just need to do so at different times. Of course, temporal distancing needs to be accompanied by fastidious hygiene to eliminate all possibility of COVID-19 transmission via surfaces.

Staggering strategy

Substantial and effective scheduling changes that can be made without too much inconvenience (or where the benefits clearly outweigh the costs) might include:

Reduced supermarket opening hours, as happened in parts of Italy, might not help physical distancing because it compresses customers into the same space during a shorter time window.

The concept of regular work hours could be relaxed a bit more. Morning people might choose to start at 7 am, while night owls could opt for 10 am.

Staggering the end of the school day 15 minutes either side of 3pm would substantially improve physical distancing.
Michael Lee/Flinders Univ./SA Museum

Why it works

The diagram below shows how spatial and temporal distancing can work together to flatten the curve of infections. Imagine a randomly spread population of 1,000 people, one of whom is infected. With free movement, everyone becomes infected within a relatively short time. If we reduce movement by 80% (spatial distancing; dashed curve), the rate of infection is slowed. If we halve the time people spend exposed to one another (temporal distancing; dotted curve), the rate of infection also slows, but not as much. But if we combine both of these measures (red curve), the effect is strongest of all.

Different hypothetical COVID-19 infection scenarios compared to a do-nothing baseline. The first scenario considers a movement probability that’s only 20% of normal (spatial distancing). The second scenario halves the exposure time to represent temporal distancing. The final scenario includes both spatial and temporal distancing. R code to reproduce this graph can be obtained at: https://github.com/cjabradshaw/COVID19distancing.
Corey Bradshaw/Flinders Univ.



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Temporal distancing will come with economic and social costs. Working night shifts or irregular hours can cause health problems; organising childcare or work meetings outside ‘regular’ business hours could be challenging; and travel and outdoor activity at night have safety risks. These costs will have to be carefully weighed in any particular instance.

Even after the current pandemic is controlled, there will remain economic incentives for temporal distancing: boom-and-bust cycles are inefficient. Public transport, restaurants, telcos, electricity suppliers, and other service providers already offer off-peak discounts.

Cutting the numbers

Besides using both spatial and temporal distancing, we can further slow the virus by restricting the number of different people we encounter.

For example, while small-group personal fitness training is still allowed, having the same 10 people in each class is better than mixing and matching classes. This would help restrict any infections to a small group, and make contact tracing much easier.

Workplaces and schools could also consider keeping people in consistent teams rather than mixing them up, at least while distancing is required.

Reducing contacts between groups is even more important for older people. Age-stratified visiting or service times, such as the dedicated elderly shopping hours already in place in some supermarkets, might also help reduce transmission between younger people (who generally have higher mixing and infection rates) and older people (who are at greater risk of severe disease).

Social distancing will be a fact of life for months to come. So we need to do it as smartly and efficiently as possible.The Conversation

Mike Lee, Professor in Evolutionary Biology (jointly appointed with South Australian Museum), Flinders University; Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Matthew Flinders Fellow in Global Ecology and Models Theme Leader for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, Flinders University, and Craig Dalton, Conjoint Senior Lecturer School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘This crisis has been unfolding for years’: 4 photos of Australia from space, before and after the bushfires



Use the slider tool in the images below to see before and after NASA satellite images of Australia’s fire and drought effects.
NASA

Molly Glassey, The Conversation; Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, The Conversation

Editor’s note: We pulled four before-and-after-images from NASA’s Worldview application, and asked bushfire researcher Grant Williamson to reflect on the story they tell. Here’s what he told us:


I’ve been studying fires for more than a decade. I use satellite data to try to understand the global and regional patterns in fire – what drives it and how it will shift in the future as our climate and land use patterns change.

When I look at these images I think: this is a crisis we have seen coming for years. It’s something I have been watching unfold.

Look at the sheer scale of it. Seeing this much fire in the landscape in such a broad area, seeing so much severe fire at once, this quantity and concentration of smoke – it is astonishing. I haven’t seen it like this before.

November 1, 2019 and January 3, 2020

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In this comparison, you can see November last year versus now. In the present picture (on the right hand side) you can see a vast quantity of intense fires currently burning right down the eastern seaboard and a huge amount of smoke. It’s been blowing out across toward New Zealand for weeks now.

The scale of the current fires is definitely unusual. In a typical year, you might see, for example, a large fire in the alps (near Mount Kosciuszko) or in the Blue Mountains – but they would be isolated events.

What’s striking here is that there is so much going on at once. I have never seen it like this before.

Black Saturday smoke, Feburary 8, 2009 and the 2019-2020 bushfires smoke, January 3, 2020

This one is comparing two smoke events: one from Black Saturday and one from the current fires. In both cases, huge quantities of smoke was released. Both times, the sort of forest burning is very dense, there is a lot of wet eucalypt forest here which naturally has a high fuel load and that’s creating all that smoke. This type of forest only burns during extreme weather conditions.

Simply due to the scale of it and the fact that it’s been going on so long, I would say the current event is worse than Black Saturday, in terms of the quantity of smoke.

East Australia, 10 years ago vs today

In this image, we can the impact of drought. A decade ago, on the left hand side, it was clearly quite green along eastern Australia. That green shows there is a lot of growing vegetation there: pasture crops, grasses and a very wet environment.

If you compare that to the current year, on the right hand side, you can see it’s now extremely brown and extremely dry. There’s not much in the way of vegetation. That’s a result of drought and high temperatures.

Kangaroo Island, 2 months ago vs today

In this image, you can see Kangaroo Island two months ago on the left hand side, versus today.

The main thing I note here is the drying. The “before” image is so much greener than the “after” image. So there’s a real lack of rainfall that’s driving fire severity in this area. You can really see how much the island has dried out.


This has been an extraordinary year for climate and weather, and that’s manifesting now in these unprecedented bushfires. It’s not over yet.

But what’s important is the lessons we draw from this crisis and doing as much as we can to reduce the risk in future.


Grant Williamson is a Tasmania-based researcher with the NSW Bushfire Risk Management Research Hub.The Conversation

Molly Glassey, Digital Editor, The Conversation; Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, Multimedia Editor, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Space can solve our looming resource crisis – but the space industry itself must be sustainable


Richard Matthews, University of Adelaide

Australia’s space industry is set to grow into a multibillion-dollar sector that could provide tens of thousands of jobs and help replenish the dwindling stocks of precious resources on Earth. But to make sure they don’t flame out prematurely, space companies need to learn some key lessons about sustainability.

Sustainability is often defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Often this definition is linked to the economic need for growth. In our context, we link it to the social and material needs of our communities.

We cannot grow without limit. In 1972, the influential report The Limits to Growth argued that if society’s growth continued at projected rates, humans would experience a “sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity” by 2070. Recent research from the University of Melbourne’s sustainability institute updated and reinforced these conclusions.

Our insatiable hunger for resources increases as we continue to strive to improve our way of life. But how does our resource use relate to the space industry?




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Dig deep: Australia’s mining know-how makes it the perfect $150m partner for NASA’s Moon and Mars shots


There are two ways we could try to avert this forecast collapse: we could change our behaviour from consumption to conservation, or we could find new sources to replenish our stocks of non-renewable resources. Space presents an opportunity to do the latter.

Asteroids provide an almost limitless opportunity to mine rare earth metals such as gold, cobalt, nickle and platinum, as well as the resources required for the future exploration of our solar system, such as water ice. Water ice is crucial to our further exploration efforts as it can be refined into liquid water, oxygen, and rocket fuel.

But for future space missions to top up our dwindling resources on Earth, our space industries themselves must be sustainable. That means building a sustainable culture in these industries as they grow.

How do we measure sustainability?

Triple bottom-line accounting is one of the most common ways to assess the sustainability of a company, based on three crucial areas of impact: social, environmental, and financial. A combined framework can be used to measure performance in these areas.

In 2006, UTS sustainable business researcher Suzanne Benn and her colleagues introduced a method for assessing the corporate sustainability of an organisation in the social and environmental areas. This work was extended in 2014 by her colleague Bruce Perrott to include the financial dimension.

This model allows the assessment of an organisation based on one of six levels of sustainability. The six stages, in order, are: rejection, non-responsiveness, compliance, efficiency, strategic proactivity, and the sustaining corporation.

Sustainability benchmarking the space industry

In my research, which I presented this week at the Australian Space Research Conference in Adelaide, I used these models to assess the sustainability of the American space company SpaceX.

Using freely available information about SpaceX, I benchmarked the company as compliant (level 3 of 6) within the sustainability framework.

While SpaceX has been innovative in designing ways to travel into space, this innovation has not been for environmental reasons. Instead, the company is focused on bringing down the cost of launches.

SpaceX also relies heavily on government contracts. Its profitability has been questioned by several analysts with the capital being raised through the use of loans and the sale of future tickets in the burgeoning space tourism industry. Such a transaction might be seen as an exercise in revenue generation, but accountants would classify such a sale as a liability.

The growing use of forward sales is a growing concern for the industry, with other tourism companies such as Virgin Galactic failing to secure growth. It has been reported that Virgin Galactic will run out of customers by 2023 due to the high costs associated with space travel.




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SpaceX’s culture also rates poorly for sustainability. As at many startups, employees at SpaceX are known to work more than 80 hours a week without taking their mandatory breaks. This problem was the subject of a lawsuit settled in 2017. Such behaviour contravenes Goal 8 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which seeks to achieve “decent work for all”.

What’s next?

Australia is in a unique position. As the newest player in the global space industry, the investment opportunity is big. The federal government predicts that by 2030, the space sector could be a A$12 billion industry employing 20,000 people.

Presentations at the Australian Space Research Conference by the Australian Space Agency made one thing clear: regulation is coming. We can use this to gain a competitive edge.




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By embedding sustainability principles into emerging space startups, we can avoid the economic cost of having to correct bad behaviours later.

We will gain the first-mover advantage on implementing these principles, which will in turn increase investor confidence and improve company valuations.

To ensure that the space sector can last long enough to provide real benefits for Australia and the world, its defining principle must be sustainability.The Conversation

Richard Matthews, Research Associate | Councillor, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dig deep: Australia’s mining know-how makes it the perfect $150m partner for NASA’s Moon and Mars shots


Andrew Dempster, UNSW

In the wake of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s meeting with US President Donald Trump, the Australian government announced on Sunday a commitment of A$150million “into our local businesses and new technologies that will support NASA on its inspirational campaign to return to the Moon and travel to Mars”.

It is unclear at this point where the government intends to spend this money, but there’s no harm in some reflective speculation.




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Because this new commitment is to deep space missions, clearly it is separate from the A$245 million being invested in Australia’s Smartsat Cooperative Research Centre or the A$4.5 million for the Centre for Cubesats, UAVs and their Applications, both of which are generally looking at applications in Earth orbit.

The funding should also be separate from that committed to two Australian Space Agency initiatives: the A$6 million Mission Control Centre for South Australia, and the A$4.5 million Robotics, Automation and Artificial Intelligence Command and Control Centre for Western Australia. Both of these centres could, however, be used in any planned Moon and Mars initiatives.

The funding allocation should also not include the money already committed to space projects by CSIRO under its Space Technology Future Science Platforms initiative.

Where should it be spent?

In thinking about where the money can be spent, it’s worth noting the brief is explicitly to “support NASA”. So, where could Australia help?

NASA’s Orion spacecraft, centrepiece of the Artemis mission, will need lots of technical support.
NASA

NASA’s two main lunar initiatives are the Lunar Gateway and Project Artemis, both of which have been mentioned in relation to Australia’s funding pledge. Mars may be the long-term destination, but the Moon is where it’s at right now.

The Lunar Gateway is infrastructure: a spacecraft placed in a halo orbit (always in view of Earth) that is sometimes as close as 3,000km to the Moon’s surface. It will be used as a hub for astronauts, equipment and communications, and a staging post for lunar landings and returns.

Artemis aims to use NASA’s large new rocket, the Space Launch System, to deliver astronauts, including the first woman to walk on the Moon, to the lunar surface by 2024. It will develop a host of new technologies and is openly collaborative.




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One contribution that cannot be ignored in this context is the technology emerging from Australia’s dominant mining industry. The strength in robotics, automation and remote operations has led to the above-mentioned robotics centre being slated for WA. What’s more, the Australian Remote Operations in Space and on Earth institute, a wide-ranging industry collaboration launched in July, is also likely to be headquartered in WA.

Another area where Australia is developing interesting technology is in optical communications with spacecraft, being driven by research at the Australian National University. At a recent CSIRO workshop to develop “flagship” missions for Australia, the idea of using lasers to beam communications rapidly to the Moon and back was highly rated.

Putting ideas out there

Of the nine possible flagships considered, seven are potentially relevant to the new funding. These include a space weather satellite, an asteroid detection system, a cubesat to Mars, a radiotelescope on the Moon, and a solar sail that could power spacecraft to the Moon. There are plenty of good Australian ideas around.

However, the flagship most closely related to the content of the announcement was a project proposal (disclosure: it’s mine!) that would place an orbiter around the Moon and design a lander/rover to establish our ability to extract water from permanent ice. Water can be used for many things in a settlement, and when split into hydrogen and oxygen it can be used as rocket fuel to move things around, including to Mars.




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All of our research in this area has focused on how this can be done in a commercial way, very much in line with the philosophy of “Space 2.0”. We are putting together a significant team of academics, companies (not just mining and space ones), and agencies to pursue these missions seriously.

There has never been a better time to be working in the space sector in Australia. I and all of my colleagues in the field hope the latest announcement is the next step in establishing the vibrant, sustainable space industry so many in Australia now see as achievable.The Conversation

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

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

India has it right: nations either aim for the Moon or get left behind in the space economy



India’s Chandrayaan-2 Moon mission blasts off from Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India, on 22 July 2019.
Indian Space Research Organisation/EPA

Nicholas Borroz, University of Auckland

India’s Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft has settled into lunar orbit, ahead of its scheduled Moon landing on September 7. If it succeeds India will join a very select club, now comprising the former Soviet Union, the United States and China.

As with all previous Moon missions, national prestige is a big part of India’s Moon shot. But there are some colder calculations behind it as well. Space is poised to become a much bigger business, and both companies and countries are investing in the technological capability to ensure they reap the earthly rewards.

Last year private investment in space-related technology skyrocketed to US$3.25 billion, according to the London-based Seraphim Capital – a 29% increase on the previous year.

The list of interested governments is also growing. Along with China and India joining the lunar A-list, in the past decade eight countries have founded space agencies – Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, South Africa, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

China’s Chang’e 4 spacecraft landed on the far side of the Moon on 11 January 2019. This image taken with the lander’s camera shows the mission’s lunar rover Yutu-2, or Jade Rabbit 2.
China National Space Administration/EPA

Of prime interest is carving out a piece of the market for making and launching commercial payloads. As much as we already depend on satellites now, this dependence will only grow.

In 2018 382 objects were launched into space. By 2040 it might easily be double that, with companies like Amazon planning “constellations”, composed of thousands of satellites, to provide telecommunication services.

The satellite business is just a start. The next big prize will be technology for “in-situ resource utilisation” – using materials from space for space operations. One example is extracting water from the Moon (which could also be split to provide oxygen and hydrogen-based rocket fuel). NASA’s administrator, Jim Bridenstine, has suggested Australian agencies and companies could play a key role in this.




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All up, the potential gains from a slice of the space economy are huge. It is estimated the space economy could grow from about US$350 billion now to more than US$1 trillion (and as possibly as much US$2,700 billion) in 2040.

Launch affordability

At the height of its Apollo program to land on the Moon, NASA got more than 4% of the US federal budget. As NASA gears up to return to the Moon and then go to Mars, its budget share is about 0.5%.

In space money has most definitely become an object. But it’s a constraint that’s spurring innovation and opening up economic opportunities.

NASA pulled the pin on its space shuttle program in 2011 when the expected efficiencies of a resusable launch vehicle failed to pan out. Since then it has bought seats on Russian Soyuz rockets to get its astronauts into space. It is now paying SpaceX, the company founded by electric car king Elon Musk, to deliver space cargo.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft just moments after undocking from the International Space Station on 8 March 2019.
NASA/EPA

SpaceX’s stellar trajectory, having entered the business a little more than a decade ago, demonstrates the possibilities for new players.

To get something into orbit using the space shuttle cost about US$54,500 a kilogram. SpaceX says the cost of its Falcon 9 rocket and reuseable Dragon spacecraft is about US$2,700 a kilogram. With costs falling, the space economy is poised to boom.




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Choosing a niche

As the space economy grows, it’s likely different countries will come to occupy different niches. Specialisation will be the key to success, as happens for all industries.

In the hydrocarbon industry, for instance, some countries extract while others process. In the computer industry, some countries design while others manufacture.
There will be similar niches in space. Governments’ policies will play a big part in determining which nation fills which niche.

There are three ways to think about niches.

First, function. A country could focus on space mining, for instance, or space observation. It could act as a space communication hub, or specialise in developing space-based weapons.

Luxembourg is an example of functional specialisation. Despite its small size, it punches above its weight in the satellite industry. Another example is Russia, which for now has the monopoly on transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.

Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin flanked by NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Nick Hague at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, as they prepare for their launch aboard the Soyuz MS-12 in March 2019.
Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

Second, value-adding. A national economy can focus on lower or higher value-add processes. In telecommunications, for example, much of the design work is done in the United States, while much of the manufacturing happens in China. Both roles have benefits and drawbacks.

Third, blocs. Global production networks sometimes fragment. One can already see the potential for this happening between the United States and China. If it occurs, other countries must either align with one bloc or remain neutral.

Aligning with a large power ensures patronage, but also dependence. Being between blocs has its risks, but also provides opportunities to gain from each bloc and act as an intermediary.




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The first space race, between the Soviet Union and the United States, was singularly driven by political will and government policy. The new space race is more complex, with private players taking the lead in many ways, but government priorities and policy are still crucial. They will determine which countries reach the heights, and which get left behind.The Conversation

Nicholas Borroz, PhD candidate in international business and comparative political economy, University of Auckland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia can pick up its game and land a Moon mission



The ‘Stairway to the Moon’ as seen from Western Australia.
Flickr/Gary Tindale, CC BY

Andrew Dempster, UNSW

Now all the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing have died down it’s worth considering where we are with future lunar missions half a century on.

Australia has long played a role in space exploration beyond helping to bring those historic images of the first moonwalk to our television screens back in 1969.

Labor MP Peter Khalil has already called for Australia to be involved in a mission to the Moon, and later to Mars. He is co-chair of the recently reformed Parliamentary Friends of Space, along with the National’s MP Kevin Hogan.




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But there is plenty of interest from others in going to the Moon.

The new Moon race

Only last month, India launched its Chandrayaan 2 mission that’s already orbited the Moon and due to land there on September 7.

China recently landed Chang’e-4 on the far side of the Moon while Israel almost succeeded in landing its Beresheet probe.

NASA has committed to sending people to the Moon again by 2024, and to significant lunar infrastructure such as the lunar Gateway, lunar landers and companies to deliver payloads to the Moon.

There is no doubt the Moon has once more captured the world’s interest. One of the reasons for this is human exploration, and that a Moon presence is now recognised as being essential to any future mission to Mars.

Water on the Moon

Another is the presence of water on the Moon, and the usefulness of water for all sorts of reasons in space.

By the time we hosted the second Off-Earth Mining Forum in 2015, it was clear water was the space resource of most immediate interest.

But the companies that existed at that time were mainly looking to source that water from asteroids. It has only been in the past two years that companies like iSpace have come to the fore, aiming at extracting water from the Moon.

Australia has reacted quite quickly to this evolving environment. Only last month, the first workshop met to establish a Remote Operations Institute in Western Australia to look at operating automated machines at a distance – remote mines and space.

The CSIRO identified nine potential “nation-building” flagship space missions, of which four relate to the Moon. One (disclosure, championed by me) is an orbiter and lander aimed at extracting water, but the other three could all support such a mission. Of those nine, four (including mine) have been selected for further examination at a workshop in mid-August in Brisbane.

Since January, we have been working on the Wilde project, where we have re-focussed our space resources research towards the permanently shadowed craters at the Moon’s poles, where water is highly likely to occur in acceptable concentrations.

We are also looking to reduce the risk of investing in a water extraction venture, including the design of orbiter and lander missions.

Explosion of Aussie interest

These Australian initiatives are all being driven in part by the explosion of the Australian space sector. One symptom of this is the establishment of the Australian Space Agency. The agency’s very existence and its promise have further emboldened space businesses and researchers.

But more than a year after its founding we still await any real missions, or commitment to upstream projects (upstream in space projects means those that are actually in space – those great Australian contributions to Apollo were all on the ground – downstream).

The other important driver for the new space projects mentioned above is that Australia has such a strong mining industry, and that so much mining innovation is created in Australia.




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As disciplines, space and mining have a lot in common: both involve complex engineering systems, work in hostile environments, and human control is increasingly handed over to autonomous robotics. Exploiting resources in space represents a genuine opportunity for Australia to establish a niche around which a sustainable space industry can be built.

So now is a perfect time for Australia to consider a new Moon mission. The industry is growing rapidly and a flagship mission would give it something around which to build.

Our special expertise in resource extraction offers a unique opportunity, which others have only just started to pursue. And a community of companies and researchers has been gathered for the task.

Hopefully it won’t be another 50 years before Australia has its own presence on the Moon.The Conversation

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

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why isn’t Australia in deep space?


David Flannery, Queensland University of Technology

This weekend marks 50 years exactly since humans first walked on the Moon. It also marks Australia’s small but significant role in enabling NASA to place boots on the lunar landscape – or at least to broadcast the event.

Those literally otherworldly images – beamed into countless schools, homes and workplaces – were at times routed through the Parkes Radio Telescope in New South Wales.




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Not one but two Aussie dishes were used to get the TV signals back from the Apollo 11 moonwalk


Thanks to a strong radioastronomy program dating back to the 1950s, a warm political relationship, and a geographically useful position in the Southern Hemisphere, Australian facilities have served NASA’s Deep Space Network for well over half a century.

The Spaceflight Operations Center at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where the Australian component of the Deep Space Network can often be seen relaying data.
NASA JPL/Caltech

Today, if you walk into the Spacecraft Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California (which served as backup control room for the Apollo missions), you’re sure to notice an Australian flag positioned near a monitor showing a live stream of data from the Deep Space Network. The symbol for the Australian relay flashes as data arrive from spacecraft orbiting objects in the inner Solar System, and from others operating beyond the orbit of Pluto.

Through the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex, Australia’s telescopes and tracking stations have played a role in every deep space mission since Apollo. However, our involvement is largely serendipitous rather than intentional, with generations of Australian governments having shown close to zero interest in space science.

Until the formation of the Australian Space Agency, almost 49 years to the day since the Parkes dish helped people everywhere watch the moon landings, Australia was the only OECD country without a national space agency.

Yet we were once a genuine space power. Australia was the third nation to launch a satellite from within its national borders, and the seventh overall. During the Apollo era, Woomera was the largest land-based test range in the Western world.

Notwithstanding a recently reinvigorated commercial light launch industry and a range of Earth observation and communications satellites, space science has followed a downward trajectory in Australia ever since. Deep space exploration in particular is viewed as the exclusive playground of superpowers, far too expensive for a middling nation.

Yet examples abound of smaller nations punching well above their weight in deep space. Take Canada, a country of comparable population and wealth to Australia, which has contributed numerous payloads to international missions. The Shuttle Remote Manipulator System, better known as the Canadarm, has worked on both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, inspiring a generation of robotics students along the way.

Canada’s Remote Manipulator System (RMS) seen from the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2005.
NASA

Canada will now build and operate a similar instrument on the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, the first stepping stone for astronauts headed to Mars.

Canada will build a new arm for NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station (right).
NASA

Looking towards the next favourable launch window for Mars, which will occur in mid-2020, the United Arab Emirates (with a GDP less than a quarter of Australia’s) will launch its Mars orbiter. The European and Russian space agencies will launch a combined orbiter, lander and rover mission. China is on track to launch the first Chinese Mars rover in the same window, and shortly thereafter India will launch a new Mars orbiter based on the tremendously successful (and, at US$73 million, surprisingly affordable) Mars Orbiter Mission.

NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission will carry contributions from France, Norway, Denmark and Italy, to name a few.

Norway has channelled its experience studying glaciers with ground-penetrating radar into a geophysical instrument that will peer below the Martian surface. The Danish Technical University has designed a new lens that can photograph objects the size of a grain of sand on Mars.

And that’s just Mars.




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These and many other nations have a front-row seat on multibillion-dollar missions designed to address some of the biggest questions in science. The experience gained will all but ensure they stay on board for yet more ambitious international collaborations in the future.

This sort of contribution is within Australia’s compass, and we are well placed to collaborate with established space powers including the US, Europe, Japan and China. As more of the Solar System is explored and settled by robots, missing out means losing our voice on space policy issues.

Now we have a national space agency, we can at least rebuild the legal framework needed for international collaboration, and develop technologies to pitch to future missions. One hurdle here is the chicken-and-egg problem of having no current product pipeline because of no previous funding.

Fortunately, despite the near-total absence of a local space industry for decades, there is a considerable contingent of Australian expats working in space agencies overseas. This valuable talent pool can hopefully be enticed home.

NASA is developing a nuclear-powered unmanned aerial vehicle for exploring the surface of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

A diverse and ambitious array of deep space missions is currently in development. Almost every part of the Solar System is receiving some attention. NASA is developing a lander to study organic molecules on Europa, and has just announced a nuclear-powered drone for exploring Titan. Numerous missions to comets, asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects are in planning or already underway.

Where might Australia get the best bang for our buck? What’s the next “Moon shot”? After all, we might as well hitch our wagon to the largest beast in the yard.

Arguably, the next grand challenge is to bring Mars samples back to Earth. Both NASA and the Chinese Space Agency are planning missions that could culminate in achieving this during the 2030s.

NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 Rover.
NASA JPL/Caltech

NASA’s Mars 2020 rover represents the first mission in that series – indeed, one of its instruments will carry out a chemical analysis project led by Australian geologist Abigail Allwood. I am another Australian involved in this mission, and our compatriot Adrian Brown is the Mars 2020 Deputy Program Scientist.

Samples from Mars, some of which will be older than any surviving rocks on Earth, will provide new insights into the evolution of our own planet. They may even answer the question of whether life has evolved elsewhere in the Solar System, and thus whether we are likely ever to encounter living organisms beyond Earth.

This 2.7 bilion-year-old stromatolite grew in a lake environment that was probably similar to the lake that formed the sediments in Jezero Crater on Mars – the landing site for NASA’s next flagship Mars rover mission.
David Flannery

Australia can help answer these kinds of questions, given our expertise in mining geology and remote sensing – not to mention studying the world’s oldest evidence for life on Earth: the ancient microbial fossils of Western Australia.

In this and in other deep space science opportunities, all we lack is the courage to imagine what is possible, and the confidence in our ability to succeed.The Conversation

David Flannery, Planetary Scientist, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To be a rising star in the space economy, Australia should also look to the East



Diversifying its space partners could help Australia avoid getting pushed around by the space rivalry of China and the United States.
Alex Cherney/CSIRO/EPA

Nicholas Borroz, University of Auckland

The UK’s space agency is already planning for spaceflights to Australia, taking just 90 minutes. This week it announced the site of its first “spaceport”.

Where exactly a spacecraft might land in Australia is still anyone’s guess.

Australia wants to become a bona fide space power in the emerging space economy – exemplified by the rise of private space companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and others.

But the UK Space Agency’s well-developed plans to build Europe’s first spaceport in Cornwall, southwest England, as well as another to launch rockets carrying micro-satellites in Sutherland, north Scotland, shows the Australian venture has a lot more groundwork to do.




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The Australian government founded the Australian Space Agency just one year ago. It is about to invest tens of millions of dollars in international space projects.

But right now, it could be argued, it has a large problem: How will Australia connect to the rest of the international space economy?

Focused on old friends

Before the Australian Space Agency was founded, Australia’s main international relations regarding outer space were with the United States and some European countries. It has long hosted ground stations for NASA and the European Space Agency.

It has cooperated with other international partners to a lesser extent. The most notable project is the Square Kilometre Array, an astronomy project being built in Australia and South Africa. International partners include Canada, China, India and New Zealand.

Though Australia has indicated it wants to “open doors internationally” for space partnerships, so far it has been focused on building up ties with its old friends in the US and Europe.

The Australian Space Agency has been talking to NASA about cooperation, including on NASA’s Lunar Gateway effort to build a permanent presence on the Moon. It has signed statements of strategic intent with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, two large American aerospace firms that are NASA contractors. A private northern Australian rocket launch company reports it is negotiating to launch NASA sounding rockets next year.




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NASA and space tourists might be in our future but first we need to decide who can launch from Australia


The US communications firm Viasat plans to build a ground station near Alice Springs. American universities are the only foreign partners of Australia’s newly opened CubeSat and unmanned aerial vehicle research centre, CUAVA.

With the Europeans, the Australian Space Agency has signed memoranda of understanding with France and Britain. The Italian space company SITAEL has expanded to Adelaide, where the Australian Space Agency is based. The federal government’s new SmartSat cooperative research centre has a consortium of nearly 100 industry and research partners. One is the European aerospace giant Airbus, with which the Australian Space Agency has also signed a statement of strategic intent.

These are still early days, but outside of partnerships with the Americans and Europeans, the only major international developments since the Australian Space Agency’s founding are with Canada and the United Arab Emirates.

Ties with China and India

So should Australia diversify its relations?

On the one hand, tying Australia’s space economy to the Americans and Europeans makes sense. Both have large markets and developed space industries. Close ties to both will likely ensure a steady stream of business.

On the other hand, there are benefits to pursuing a new type of multilateralism that is less US- or Euro-centric.

Through the Square Kilometre Array project, Australia has links with China and India. Compared to the Americans and Europeans, these two countries have different competitive strengths in the global space industry.




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Positioning between them could put Australia in a unique place in the global production networks of space science and technology. This is particularly so if relations between some of these larger players are distant (the United States and China, for example). Australia could benefit from being a go-between.

Australia could also choose to supplement these larger relationships with ties to smaller countries. Especially with other new entrants into the space economy – New Zealand established a space agency in 2016, for example – there are common points of interest.

All are likely to want to diversify relationships with big space powers and not be pushed into dealing with just one or another. Again, friction between the United States and China comes to mind. Smaller space powers could band together to maintain their ability to make their own independent decisions.

There is no right answer about how Australia should proceed with international engagement in the space economy. More accurately, there are different right answers depending on what sort of space power Australia ultimately wants to become.

Australia’s space agency is just one year old. The country does not need to automatically continue its Western orientation. It can instead recreate itself as a truly international actor in the new space economy.The Conversation

Nicholas Borroz, PhD candidate in international business and comparative political economy, University of Auckland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

NASA and space tourists might be in our future but first we need to decide who can launch from Australia


A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, US, May 2019.
NASA Kennedy , CC BY-NC-ND

Melissa de Zwart, University of Adelaide

In a sign the Australian Space Agency is already opening up new doors for Australian industry, NASA says it will be launching rockets from Arnhem Space Centre, in Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory, in 2020.

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews has also indicated she will encourage space tourism from Australia. She wants passengers to experience zero-gravity from the convenience of a domestic airport.




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But who gets to decide what can be launched into space? That depends on where the launch takes place, and in the case of Australia those rules are currently under review.

International treaty

The authority for who approves, supervises and grants permission for launch of space objects is based on UN treaties that provide a framework for international space law. The most important is the Outer Space Treaty (OST), which entered into force in 1967.

Article VI of the OST provides that nation states (that is, countries) bear “international responsibility” for “national activities” undertaken in outer space by government and commercial users alike.

States remain responsible for activities undertaken by commercial entities – for example, companies such as SpaceX – and are obliged to undertake ongoing supervision of such activities.

How individual countries choose to conduct such supervision is left entirely up to them, but in most cases it is done by way of domestic space law.

Another international treaty, the Liability Convention provides that the liability of the state extends to all launches that are made from that state’s territory. For example, the US is legally responsible for all launches that take place from that country as well as for launches elsewhere that it procures.

This imposes a significant burden on the state to ensure that international requirements are complied with.

Domestic space law regulates matters such as the granting of launch permits, and insurance and indemnity requirements. In Australia, this is achieved through the Space Activities (Launches and Returns) Act 2018. In New Zealand, the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017, applies.

The Starlink network

In the US, it’s the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that gave Elon Musk’s SpaceX permission to launch thousands of Starlink satellites as part of a plan to create a low-orbit internet network.

The licence is for one constellation of 4,409 satellites and a second constellation of 7,518 satellites. The FCC requires launch of half of the total number planned within six years.

The first 60 satellites were launched into orbit last month, and have already given rise to a number of concerns.




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Scientists and astronomers are worried such a large constellation of satellites will be visible to the naked eye in the night sky. In response, Musk has already agreed to make the next batch less shiny.

Penalties apply

As well as granting launch licences, the FCC can also issue fines for any unlicensed launch by US operators.

Swarm Technologies launched four SpaceBee satellites from India in January 2018, after having been denied a licence from the FCC. The FCC was concerned the satellites were too small to be effectively tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network.

FCC subsequently fined Swarm US$900,000, partly as a way to spread the word that licensing of launching is a serious business but because the company had also performed other activities that required FCC authorisation.

In addition to presenting issues for tracking, new satellites also presented a hazard in terms of their potential to create large debris fields.

Notably, there are no binding international laws with respect to the creation of space debris. There are non-binding Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines issued by the UN Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee. But these are only guidelines and are frequently overlooked in the interests of commercial expediency.

The 2018 Australian Act does require the applicant for various Australian licences (such as a launch permit) to include “a strategy for debris mitigation”. This may include, for example, a plan to de-orbit the satellite after a certain number of years.

Launches from Australia

Australia’s first claim to fame as a space-faring nation was the launch of WRESAT (the Weapons Research Establishment Satellite) from Woomera, South Australia, in 1967.

But the launch platforms on nearby Lake Hart were dismantled following the departure to French Guiana in 1971 of the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) – whose name ELDO still graces the sole hotel in Woomera, in outback South Australia.

The ELDO hotel in Woomera.
Flickr/kool skatkat, CC BY-NC-ND

From this time until the late 1990s there was little interest in space launches from Australia.




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The Space Activities Act 1998 was enacted in response to a brief interest in US company Kistler Aerospace developing a spaceport at Woomera, SA.

But no spaceport was constructed nor any launches conducted. A review of the Space Activities Act and of the Australian space industry in 2016-2017 led to the new Space Activities (Launches and Returns) Act in 2018.

This Act envisions a broader role for domestic space industries, including but not limited to, launch.

The rules which flesh out the details of the application of that licensing regime are currently open for public review and comment. The deadline for making a submission closes at the end of this week.The Conversation

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

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

India destroys its own satellite with a test missile, still says space is for peace


Bin Li, University of Newcastle

On March 27, India announced it had successfully conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, called “Mission Shakti”. After the United States, Russia and China, India is now the fourth country in the world to have demonstrated this capability.

The destroyed satellite was one of India’s own. But the test has caused concerns about the space debris generated, which potentially threatens the operation of functional satellites.

There are also political and legal implications. The test’s success may be a plus for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is now trying to win his second term in the upcoming election.




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But the test can be viewed as a loss for global security, as nations and regulatory bodies struggle to maintain a view of space as a neutral and conflict-free arena in the face of escalating technological capabilities.

According to the official press release, India destroyed its own satellite by using technology known as “kinetic kill”. This particular technology is usually termed as “hit-to-kill”.

A kinetic kill missile is not equipped with an explosive warhead. Simply put, what India did was to launch the missile, hit the target satellite and destroy it with energy purely generated by the high speed of the missile interceptor. This technology is only one of many with ASAT capabilities, and is the one used by China in its 2007 ASAT test.

Power and strength

Since the first satellite was launched in 1957 (the Soviet Union’s Sputnik), space has become – and will continue to be – a frontier where big powers enhance their presence by launching and operating their own satellites.

There are currently 1,957 satellites orbiting Earth. They provide crucial economic, civil and scientific benefits to the world, from generating income to a wide range of services such as navigation, communication, weather forecasts and disaster relief.

The tricky thing about satellites is that they can also be used for military and national security purposes, while still serving the civil end: one good example is GPS.

So it’s not surprising big powers are keen to develop their ASAT capabilities. The name of India’s test, Shakti, means “power, strength, capability” in Hindi.

Danger of space debris

A direct consequence of ASAT is that it creates space debris when the original satellite breaks apart. Space debris consists of pieces of non-functional spacecraft, and can vary in size from tiny paint flecks to an entire “dead” satellite. Space debris orbits from hundreds to thousands of kilometres above Earth.

The presence of space debris increases the likelihood of operational satellites being damaged.

Although India downplayed the potential for danger by arguing that its test was conducted in the lower atmosphere, this perhaps did not take into account the creation of pieces smaller than 5-10 cm in diameter.

In addition, given the potential self-sustaining nature of space debris, it’s possible the amount of space debris caused by India’s ASAT will actually increase due to the collision.

Aside from the quantity, the speed of space debris is another worrying factor. Space junk can travel at up to 10km per second in lower Earth orbit (where India intercepted its satellite), so even very small particles pose a realistic threat to space missions such as human spaceflight and robotic refuelling missions.

Regulatory catch-up

As we’re seeing clearly now in social media, when technology moves fast the law can struggle to keep up, and this leads to regulatory absence. This is also true of international space law.

Five fundamental global space treaties were created 35-52 years ago:

  • Outer Space Treaty (1967) – governs the activities of the states in exploration and use of outer space
  • Rescue Agreement (1968) – relates to the rescue and return of astronauts, and return of launched objects
  • Liability Convention (1972) – governs damage caused by space objects
  • Registration Convention (1967) – relates to registration of objects in space
  • Moon Agreement (1984) – governs the activities of states on the Moon and other celestial bodies.



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These were written when there were only a handful of spacefaring nations, and space technologies were not as sophisticated as they are now.

Although these treaties are binding legal documents, they leave many of today’s issues unregulated. For example, in terms of military space activities, the Outer Space Treaty only prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, not conventional weapons (including ballistic missiles, like the one used by India in Mission Shakti).

In addition, the treaty endorses that outer space shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes. However, the issue is how to interpret the term “peaceful purposes”. India claimed, after its ASAT test:

we have always maintained that space must be used only for peaceful purposes.

When terms such as “peaceful” seem to be open to interpretation, it’s time to update laws and regulations that govern how we use space.

New approaches, soft laws

Several international efforts aim to address the issues posed by new scenarios in space, including the development of military space technologies.

For example, McGill University in Canada has led the MILAMOS project, with the hope of clarifying the fundamental rules applicable to the military use of outer space.




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A similar initiative, the Woomera Manual, has been undertaken by Adelaide Law School in Australia.

Though commendable, both projects will lead to publications of “soft laws”, which will have no legally binding force on governments.

The UN needs to work much harder to attend to space security issues – the Disarmament Commission and Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space can be encouraged to collaborate on the issues regarding space weapons.

It is in everyone’s best interests to keep space safe and peaceful.The Conversation

Bin Li, Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.