In the early years of the 20th century a Russian scientist – now known as the father of astronautics and rocketry – wrote a fable exploring what life in space might be like in the future.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) suggested that, by 2017, war and conflict would be eliminated by a world government. He also proposed this as the year humanity would acquire the technology to travel beyond the Earth.
That’s 60 years after this happened in reality. So now that 2017 has been and gone, just how accurate were his other predictions?
What makes Tsiolkovsky’s story – later published in English in 1960 as Outside the Earth – so intriguing is that he assembled a fictional dream team of the finest scientific minds from the 16th to 20th centuries to build a rocket capable of reaching orbit.
The scientists included Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and Tsiolkovsky himself (under the pseudonym of Ivanov).
Using the voice of these legends of science, Tsiolkovsky described not only the practical aspects, but also the sensations and emotions of living in space. It’s an extraordinary feat of the imagination.
Let’s look at how Tsiolkovsky’s thought experiment shapes up against reality.
A rocket’s eye view
Seen from orbit, space travellers are often struck by the beauty and fragility of the Earth and experience a cognitive shift of awareness. This is known as the Overview Effect and has been reported by astronauts and cosmonauts since the 1960s.
Tsiolkovsky anticipated this. In Outside the Earth, Newton warns the rocket crew that they may find the sight of the Earth overwhelming; and indeed there are mixed reactions:
The men were stunned by the sight, some felt exhausted and moved away from the portholes […] Others, however, darted excitedly from porthole to porthole with cries of surprise and delight.
What they don’t experience, however, is another aspect of the Overview Effect: the realisation that national borders and terrestrial conflicts are ultimately meaningless.
Perhaps this is because our fictional cosmonauts are already living in a unified, peaceful world, something very far from where we are today.
In space, everyone is equal
Tsiolkovsky believed that the absence of gravity would erase social classes and promote equality.
In orbit, energy from the Sun is abundant and free. Little effort is needed to move heavy masses, so construction is cheap. Clothing is unnecessary because temperature can be easily regulated to a balmy 30 to 35 degrees Celsius. Beds and quilts are a thing of the past.
There’s no longer any difference between the resources available to rich and poor – everyone can live in a fancy microgravity palace if they want.
As appealing as this vision is, in reality space travel is still the preserve of the very wealthy, whether individuals or nations. If anything, we risk differential access to space resources increasing, rather than eroding, inequality on Earth.
The orbital diaspora
Once our fictional explorers have successfully tested their rocket, they share the technology with anyone who wants to migrate to space.
Thousands of rockets are launched into geostationary orbit – the place where most of our telecommunications satellites are today, about 35,000km above the Earth.
The colonists build orbital greenhouse habitats. Each is a cylinder 1,000×10m, housing 100 people. A soil-filled pipe runs through the centre, supporting a luxuriant ecosystem of fruit, vegetables and flowers. Without seasons, weeds or pests, there’s abundant food for our vegetarian colonists all year round.
In reality, people started living in orbit far earlier than Tsiolkovsky predicted. The first space station, Salyut 1, was launched in 1971.
The International Space Station has been permanently occupied in low Earth orbit for the past 17 years. But there’s no orbiting ring of habitats where people can escape the hardships of life on Earth.
We now know that microgravity has serious effects on the human body, including loss of bone density and impaired vision. Living in space also means exposure to dangerous levels of radiation. In any case, the cost of space travel is prohibitive for all but a tiny portion of the Earth’s population.
Mining the solar system
Of course, resources are needed to maintain the orbital life described by Tsiolkovsky. Newton and his rocket crew learn how to capture meteors and find that they contain an abundance of useful minerals: iron, nickel, silica, alumina, feldspar, various oxides, graphite and much more.
From these minerals, Newton says, building materials, oxygen for breathing, soil for plants and even water can be extracted.
While the orbital colonists are building their habitats, the rocket heads to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. A quick survey shows:
[… ] a rich and inexhaustible source of material for establishing colonies beyond the Earth’s orbit.
Tsiolkovsky was right about the importance of off-Earth mining for future space economies. Here his prediction and real life are more aligned.
But while governments, private enterprises and researchers are pursuing the riches promised by the Moon and asteroids, there’s a long way to go before the technology is equal to the task.
Leaving the cradle of Earth
A hundred years ago, Tsiolkovsky imagined that life in space would create an idyllic egalitarian society where people basked in orbiting greenhouses, drinking in the limitless energy of the Sun.
As space-for-profit competes with space as the common heritage of humanity, it’s worth remembering that there are alternative visions of the future of human society, other worlds that we can aspire to.
In one thing we have far surpassed Tsiolkovsky’s vision. At the conclusion of Outside the Earth, his cosmonaut-scientists talk of journeying from Mercury to the Rings of Saturn.
Could he have imagined that, by 2018, the Voyager spacecraft would not only be travelling outside the Earth, but outside the Solar System?
The reports examine Australia’s existing space capabilities, set them in the light of international developments, and identify growth areas and models for Australia to pursue. The promise is there:
Australia has scattered globally competitive capabilities in areas from space weather to deep-space communication but “by far the strongest areas” are applications of satellite data on Earth to industries like agriculture, communications and mining
Australian research in other sectors like 3D printing and VR is being translated to space with potentially high payoffs
While it is not the first time the government has commissioned this type of research, the updates are welcome given the fast pace of space innovation. Taken together they paint a picture of potential for the future of Australian space and a firm foundation for a space agency.
The Global Space Industry Dynamics report from Bryce Space and Technology, a US-based space specialist consulting firm, sets out the “rules of the game” in the US$344 billion (A$450 billion) space sector.
It highlights that:
three quarters of global revenues are made commercially, despite the prevailing perception that space is a government concern
most commercial revenue is made from space-enabled services and applications (like satellite TV or GPS receivers) rather than the construction and launch of space hardware itself
commercial launch and satellite manufacturing industries are still small in relative terms, at about US$20.5 billion (A$27 billion) of revenues, but show strong growth, particularly for smaller satellites and launch vehicles.
The report also looks at the emerging trends that a smart space industry in Australia will try and run ahead of. Space is becoming cheaper, more attractive to investors and increasingly important in our data-rich economy. These trends have not gone unnoticed by global competitors, though, and the report describes space as an increasingly “crowded and valuable high ground”.
What is particularly useful about the report is its sharp focus on the three numbers that determine commercial attractiveness:
The magic comes through matching these attractive sectors against areas where Australia can compete strongly because of existing capability or geographic advantage.
The report suggests growth opportunities across traditional and emerging space sectors. In traditional sectors, it calls out satellite services, particularly commercial satellite radio and broadband, and ground infrastructure as prime opportunities. In emerging sectors, earth observation data analytics, space traffic management, and small satellite manufacturing are all tipped as potentially profitable growth areas where Australia could compete.
The report adds the speculative area of space mining as an additional sector worth considering given Australia’s existing terrestrial capability.
Australian capabilities are the focus of a second report, by ACIL Allen consulting, Australian Space Industry Capability. The review highlights a smattering of world class Australian capabilities, particularly in the application of space data to activities on Earth like agriculture, transport and financial services.
There are also emerging Australian capabilities in small satellites and potentially disruptive technologies with space applications, like 3D printing, AI and quantum computing. The report notes that basic research is strong, but challenges remain in “industrialising and commercialising the resulting products”.
The concern about commercialisation prompts questions about the policies that will help Australian companies succeed.
Should we embrace recent trends and rely wholly on market mechanisms and venture capital Darwinism, or buy into traditional international space projects?
Do we send our brightest overseas for a few years’ training, or spin up a full suite of research and development programs domestically?
Are there regulations that need to change to level the playing field for Australian space exports?
Learning from the world
Part of the answer is to be found in the third report, Global Space Strategies and Best Practices, which looks at global approaches to funding, capability development, and governance arrangements. The case studies illustrate a range of styles.
The UK’s pragmatic approach developed a £5 billion (A$8 billion) export industry by focusing primarily on competitive commercial applications, including a satellite Australia recently bought a time-share on.
A longer-term play is Luxembourg’s use of tax breaks and legal changes to attract space mining ventures. Before laughing, remember that Luxembourg has space clout: satellite giants SES and Intelsat are headquartered there thanks to similar forward thinking in the 1980s. Those two companies pulled in about A$3 billion of profit between them last year.
Norway and Canada show a middle ground, combining international partnerships with clear focus areas that benefit research and the economy. Norway has taken advantage of its geography to build satellite ground stations for polar-orbiting satellites, in an interesting parallel with Australia’s longstanding ground capabilities. Canada used its relationship with the United States to build the robotic “Canadarm” for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station, developing a space robotics capability for the country.
The only caution is that confining the possible role models to the space sector is unnecessarily limiting. Commercialisation in technology fields is a broader policy question, and there is much to learn from recent innovations including CSIRO’s venture fund and the broader Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program.
We and our colleagues from around the world – including experts from Australia, Canada, the United States, Russia and China – are undertaking a multi-year project to provide a definitive guide on how law applies to military uses of outer space.
The aim is to develop a Manual on International Law Applicable to Military uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) that covers times of tension and outright hostility.
The ultimate goal is to help build transparency and confidence between space-faring states.
This should reduce the possibility of a war in space, or if it does happen, reduce the impact on the space infrastructure that we have all come to rely on so heavily.
The satellites we rely on
We rely on GPS signals for many things, including navigation, communication, banking, agriculture, travel and the internet itself. It’s estimated that 6-7% of GDP in Western countries depends on satellite navigation.
Communications satellites are applied not just for direct broadcast television, but also to enable many terrestrial networks. In remote areas of the world, they may be the only means of communication.
Satellites help us get weather forecasts and improve agricultural production. They also help us to plan disaster relief, find and mine natural resources, monitor the health of the environment and many other applications.
‘Expect’ war in space
In the military context too, satellites have become essential. In June this year, US Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said a future war in space is likely and the US is investing heavily in maintaining its military dominance in space. She commented:
We must expect that war, of any kind, will extend into space in any future conflict, and we have to change the way we think and prepare for that eventuality.
The first Gulf War in 1991 has often been called the first space war, though it wasn’t actually fought in outer space. Rather, the US and coalition forces relied heavily on GPS and other satellite technology to conduct that conflict.
Since then, space-based assets have enabled even greater capability for land, sea and air forces.
There are only five global treaties specific to space. Chief among them is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, but only one of its provisions (Article IV) directly deals with military activity – it prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space.
This includes things such as anti-satellite missiles, directed energy weapons (including lasers), electronic warfare, cyber warfare and dual-use technology, such as on-orbit servicing (“mechanic”) satellites.
A combined effort
The MILAMOS project is led by three universities: Adelaide here in Australia, McGill in Canada, and Exeter in the UK. It received some funding from the Australian and Canadian governments, as well as from private donors.
It relies on expertise from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Union of Concerned Scientists and from the major space-faring states, principally the US and Russia, but also China and other countries.
They participate in a strictly personal (rather than representative) capacity to provide an authentic account of what the law is, not to negotiate what states would like the law to be.
Even so, reflecting a true consensus position on the law, in spite of the strongly held personal positions of individual experts, can be challenging. But that is what the project aims to achieve in nine workshops over three years.
Even though these manuals are not formally endorsed by states, they are an essential reference for those who work in the field. This includes military practitioners, government lawyers and policy advisors, the media, public advocacy groups and other non-government organisations.
Final publication of the manual is expected in 2020. Paradoxically, the MILAMOS contributors earnestly hope that the manual will only ever remain on the shelf and never be used.
Right now there are around 21,000 artificial objects being tracked in Earth orbit (and many millions too small to be tracked). Only about 1,750 of these are functional satellites.
If we don’t adequately manage the traffic of objects in outer space, many services on which we depend will no longer be available.
I argue that Australia should step up and fill this role. “Space traffic management” could be an enduring, national beacon project to inspire and galvanise the Australian space industry. This will be particularly important as the prospective Australian space agency builds momentum in 2018.
Right now, the US Air Force is trying to divest itself of the space traffic management role – a responsibility that it has previously assumed for the world by default. The US Federal Aviation Administration has said that it is willing to take this on, but there are many issues to resolve, including control over assets, finances and human resources.
The Australian space industry, facilitated by the prospective Australian space agency, can seize this opportunity. We are well suited to play a role that will be valuable from a commercial perspective, and that will place us in a strong strategic position in the future global space industry and its governance.
where orbiting objects are, in as near to real-time as possible
whether they pose any risk of damage, such as a future conjunction between two objects, or interference, such as between the frequencies on which they transmit.
It could also encompass an advisory, or even directive, service to satellite operators to avoid collisions and avoid contributing to the existing space debris population. That implies that space “rules of the road” may be established.
Of course, satellites cannot physically stop at “intersections”, like we see in traffic management on Earth. But we could see development of means to actively prevent collisions, for example, by changing the orbit of space debris. That might be by another space object capturing and physically moving the space debris, or it could be done remotely, such as by a ground-based laser using photon pressure.
Australia is qualified
While Australia already has an active space industry, it is thinly spread. Government departments and agencies, universities, contracted aerospace companies (mostly large and foreign), local start-ups (mostly small) and some established Australian companies, all currently make up Australia’s participation in the space industry.
The Space Industry Association of Australia presented a case for an Australian space agency in its March 2017 White Paper. From the current 0.8% share of a US$340 billion global space industry, the Australian space industry is forecast to grow to 4% within 20 years. That calculation assumes that the efforts of the Australian space industry can be coordinated and facilitated by an Australian space agency.
In respect of managing space traffic from Australia, here are some capabilities we already have.
Tracking sensors. Australia has a growing number of sensors for tracking objects in space, including C-Band radar, Space Surveillance Telescope and space object laser tracking. Australian companies such as Saber Astronautics have been developing the means to “mine” the enormous amount of space-related data from radio astronomy sensors, notwithstanding that these were not originally designed with space traffic management in mind.
Moving debris. The Space Environment Research Centre is exploring how lasers for space object tracking based in Australia could be used for moving space debris at risk of colliding with active satellites. It also conducts other research to improve the quality of orbital predictions.
Historical and positive role in space. Australia has been active in the Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space since its inception in 1959. Australian initiatives are given serious consideration by the international community, without the political polarisation that our superpower ally, the USA, can draw.
Australia is therefore not only well suited to contribute to space traffic management in a physical sense, but also in a regulatory sense – including facilitating the establishment of an appropriate regulatory regime.
Australia can benefit
Both myself and others have advocated for the global strategic importance of normalising the space environment. This involves establishing regular and predictable patterns of behaviour through legal rules and less formal practices and procedures. It is also a matter of national strategic significance.
An international space regulator is almost certainly going to emerge in the next decade and is likely to have some sort of gatekeeper function, including ensuring safety and sustainability in space through effective space traffic management.
Whichever nations play an active part in this role stand to gain significant international influence, and also significant commercial opportunities. This is particularly important with the impending launches of mega-constellations whose operating satellites must be protected.
Australia can and should have a key part in global space traffic management.
In forming the new agency, much has already been said about what it might do. But how the agency is set up will be just as important to success.
My five steps to an effective agency are: include both “new” and “old” space, give the agency actual power, make the most of the space “brain drain” and work cooperatively with the Department of Defence.
The most startling recent evolution in space is that there is more money on the table. Venture capital funding for space projects in each of 2015 and 2016 exceeded the total of all venture capital investments in space since 2000.
Australia has more than 43 small businesses focused on the space sector. This growth has been driven by a rapidly falling cost to participate in space activities. The cost and weight of satellites has plummeted as the technologies that deliver small, affordable smartphones found space applications.
Innovation, competition and ride-sharing on launch vehicles – think Elon Musk’s Space X and Auckland-based startup Rocket Lab – have reduced per-kilo prices to space, and costs will likely fall further.
In this rapidly changing environment, here are my five recommendations for space agency success.
1. Grow the ‘new space’ market
The “new space” market is characterised by projects focused on commercial return, particularly small satellites. This is a fast growing sector with existing companies that can deliver Australian technology jobs and export revenue.
To make the most of this existing pool of potential, the agency should fund widely with small amounts, just enough to prove concepts or encourage commercial participation. It should draw on venture capital in assembling this portfolio, as the CSIRO and the UK Space Agency are doing.
2. Do not neglect ‘old space’
Despite the hype around small satellites and commercial space, Australia should not neglect altogether the “old space” of large, reliable and expensive satellites. These are still the mainstay of the industry, and the training ground from which many startups spring.
Precisely because the work proceeds more slowly, old space offers steady cash flow to complement the precarious financing arrangements of many of the new space businesses. New space companies that can also sell hardware or services to old space companies are particularly valuable.
The path here is clear: the agency should work closely with existing trade programs to help the Australian space industry break into global supply chains, in particular helping business navigate restrictive foreign export and labour laws.
3. Give the space agency ‘teeth’
It is not enough for the agency to develop a paper vision for the Australian space sector; it needs the power to make it a reality.
Australia’s agency needs the authority to impose national strategic discipline. The government could give the agency undisputed policy authority, for example, by making it a small group within Prime Minister and Cabinet. Or the agency could be given purse-string power by allocating the civilian federal space budget through it rather than the existing patchwork of agencies.
Anything less will make the agency a contested and ineffective leader for the Australian space sector.
4. Bring back home-grown talent
There is a wealth of Australians who have gone overseas to pursue space careers. Many were back home for September’s International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, and were keen to contribute to the success of the agency.
The federal government should be flexible enough to include these dynamic individuals and accelerate the first years of the agency. For example, somebody like Christopher Boshuizen, the Australian co-founder of space startup Planet – on the path to “unicorn” US$1 billion valuation – would be a great asset working on behalf of Australian space startups.
Such talent would kick-start the late-blooming agency with world-class credibility and instant connections to global activity.
5. Work with Defence
A civilian space agency needs to establish a relationship of mutual respect with the Department of Defence space sector, while each maintains primacy in its own sphere.
Defence has substantial space experience, both directly and through Australia’s US alliance. And investments in national security space dwarf civilian spend. For example, Defence recently announced a decade-long program worth A$500 million to develop domestic satellite imagery capabilities.
A stronger space industry would benefit Australia’s economy, generating more exports and creating more job opportunities. Australia is well placed to expand its industry, particularly with the announcement of a new national space agency.
The government should actually aim to establish a national space policy as part of this announcement. That way it can secure the future of this industry.
In the 1950s, Australia was actively involved in the space industry via collaboration with other space players, including the UK. However, this started to decline since the late 1960s because of the depression and huge cost of space programs.
According to the current IMF statistics, Australia now ranks the thirteenth in the world in terms of its GDP output, but still spends very little on developing its space industry. So it’s not surprising that the industry is now underdeveloped. Though the international space industry generates about US$400 billion a year, Australia contributes only 1% to this figure.
What a stronger space industry means to Australia’s economy
Australia could create more exports in the space industry by developing its own capability to launch satellites and taking more control of data and information acquired through satellites.
Australia’s space industry currently employs up to 11,500 people. The plan to establish a national space agency could boost these numbers.
Beyond job opportunities for engineers and technicians in space launch services and satellite manufacturing, the industry also needs a great variety of specialists in other areas. For example, as a part of space industry supply chain, chemists are in demand to develop greener rocket fuel.
In the context of manned space programs, Australia could also develop medical professionals who could be recruited to research the space environment’s impact on human bodies, as NASA has done in the US.
Australia’s advantages for a stronger space economy
Australia has a geographical advantage when it comes to being a leader in space industry. From the perspective of physics, the closer the launch site is to the Equator, the heavier satellite the rocket can carry.. That’s why the US has its Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
In terms of Australia, the Northern Territory’s close proximity to the Equator makes it an ideal rocket launch site for space missions. Perhaps this is why the NT government has shown interest in developing a space industry in the state.
In fact, a few state governments have been part of the push to develop a stronger space industry. South Australia and ACT were lobbying for a national space agency earlier in 2017 and the NT recently joined this push. This could have inspired the federal government to do more to be a national leader in developing space industry.
Given the technology-intensive nature of space industry, talent is very important for sustainable success. A number of Australian universities have conducted either their own space research projects or with overseas partners. This sort of research has fostered a large team of space specialists.
Given Australia’s big size and its reliance on space technology and service, it’s important for the nation to establish its own stronger space industry to meet its needs. Australia has a few advantages in developing this and a national space agency will definitely be a boost to this aim.
We are still awaiting detail of how such an agency would look. What is critical is that the agency is not simply a replica of the earlier Space Policy Unit, and Space Coordination Office. These were small offices primarily focused on policy and the workings of government.
The real opportunity an agency offers is the growth of the local industry to the point where it is sustainable and can deliver big projects – Australian solutions to Australian problems: i.e. it is about Australian sovereignty.
To be successful in that regard, commitment to a space agency cannot be halfhearted. It must be resourced with the right quality and quantity of people to deliver a vibrant Australian industry.
Once that is achieved, and the benefits become obvious, we’ll all be asking why we didn’t do it decades ago.
Graziella Caprarelli (Associate Professor in space science, UniSA)
Details about the structure and brief of the announced future National Space Agency are not known at present. Ideally, an Australian space agency should oversee the coordination and development of the entire space supply chain.
Right now, the quality and impact of Australian space research is demonstrably well above the size of its scientific and aerospace engineering community. This fertile scientific and technological environment has encouraged many young startups revolving around space technology and space data.
Access to space is therefore crucial to ensure the sustainable growth of this nascent industry. This can only happen under the purview of a dedicated Australian agency, tasked with the coordination of all civilian space related activities in the country, with the delegation to allocate and distribute resources, and to represent and facilitate Australian interests internationally.
The present focus is on the many possibilities of economic growth and industrial development. But the long-term sustainability of a space industry in Australia will critically depend on the availability of local talent, steady supply of expertise, and the manufacturing and technical skills required to bring Australia to space.
This requires strong and continued support for STEM education, investment in space science and technology, research and training. An Australian space agency would therefore be responsible for all space-related activities.
There may be concerns that such portfolio may require the institution of a new giant bureaucracy. This need not be so, if the future agency is structured in a way that captures the expertise of the many groups and individuals already working in space-related fields all over Australia.
Duncan Blake, PhD candidate (Law and military uses of outer space, University of Adelaide)
This announcement is exciting not just for Australian space industry, but also for future generations in Australia and for the global space industry. Michael Davis, Brett Biddington and others – who are responsible for bringing the International Aeronautical Congress to Australia – have shown that industry can and will lead.
The Australian space agency will have a regulatory role, obviously, but it needs to do what the industry can’t do for itself. It needs to represent the Australian people at home and abroad, it needs to pursue Australia’s interests in global space governance bodies, it needs to not only help seize opportunities for Australia but actually create opportunities and it needs to be a focal point internally and externally.
Perhaps most importantly, it needs to facilitate collaboration by the many government agencies, plus the academic, research and other civil institutions and the growing number of commercial enterprises involved in space in Australia.
It also needs a strategy that identifies some enduring, national “beacon” projects to muster the immense energy in the Australian space industry right now and which will herald our place in space. This, and more, is what we hope to hear about in the next few days, or at most, months.
We do have to get rid of some of this stuff before Earth orbit becomes too dangerous. But heritage values should be considered in any proposal to actively remove space junk. The location of these spacecraft in orbit is part of their cultural significance, and many are low collision risks.
How do we make sure that significant cultural heritage in orbit isn’t lost, without exacerbating the debris problem?
Methods used on Earth include heritage listing, cultural heritage management plans, and mitigation strategies. These can also be applied in space – but some adaptations are necessary.
The problem with heritage lists
Numerous space places on Earth – like rocket launch sites and satellite tracking antenna – have been heritage listed under national or state heritage legislation.
However, nations can’t place their orbital heritage on a national heritage register, even though they legally own it. The Outer Space Treaty (OTS) states that space is the “province of all mankind” [sic]. Applying heritage legislation could be interpreted as extending a national jurisdiction into space, and thus making a territorial claim in contravention of this principle.
The UNESCO World Heritage List can’t be used to safeguard orbital heritage either, even for spacecraft which have “outstanding universal value”.
The World Heritage Convention does not cover “moveable” objects like our high-speed space junk. And despite its name, the World Heritage List is dependent on nations nominating properties: it is rooted in the nation-state.
Working with what we’ve got
The answer may be to turn to Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) or other international organisations, which can’t assert national interests in space. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Co-ordination Committee, with 13 member space agencies from across the world, could play a lead role in managing research and processes.
But why not adapt an existing list? While not providing legal protection, these lists do lend “moral weight”. For example, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics maintains a Historic Aerospace Sites list, which includes Tranquility Base on the Moon.
We could also do it in reverse. A number of satellites consistently appear on hit-lists for urgent removal. Among them are Midori-2, Metop-A, Metop-B, COBE and the number one risk, Envisat.
Launched in 2002 for Earth observation, Envisat is one the largest spacecraft in orbit. Contact was lost in 2012, but it is likely to remain in orbit for another 150 years.
Some predict that collisions with Envisat could generate enough debris to trigger the self-sustaining cascade of collisions dubbed the Kessler Syndrome. For Envisat, cultural significance is never going to outweigh the risks.
A Cultural Heritage Management Plan for the satellite would start with a significance assessment. Ideally, the satellite would be fully recorded before its de-orbit, so that this documentation could be used for further research. However, this is not feasible at present.
Instead, we could propose an offset. The idea is that a loss in one area is “offset” by preserving or investing in an area of equivalent environmental or heritage value.
A heritage offset may involve an effort to gather and curate associated documentation on Earth; to collect oral histories about the satellite; and to locate components, models, prototypes, or fragments which survive re-entry. This ensures that maximum information about Envisat remains for those studying 21st century human activities in orbit.
The meeting occurs in the 50th anniversary year of the launch of Australia’s first satellite, WRESAT. This project occurred as the culmination of a decade in which Australia was seen as a significant player in the space arena.
But now, Australia is perceived to be underperforming in the space sector. It remains one of only two OECD countries not to have a space agency (the other nation is Iceland).
So what happened in the past half century to slow us down? My doctoral thesis is attempting to find the answer.
The International Geophysical Year
Australian involvement in space activities commenced with participation in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), a global scientific research program focused on understanding the Earth’s relationship to its surrounding space environment. Longer than a calendar year, the IGY ran from July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958, and was a significant catalyst for space-related activities in many nations.
In mid-1955, the USA and the USSR had both announced their intention to launch a satellite during the IGY.
In that same year, Britain and Australia’s Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) announced their IGY plans to launch sounding rockets for upper atmosphere research from the WRE-managed Woomera Rocket Range. Located in outback South Australia, the range had been established in 1947 under the Anglo-Australian Joint Project as a guided weapons development and test facility.
The decision to launch “sounding” (sub-orbital measurement-taking) rockets there for the IGY, coupled with US plans to launch the world’s first satellite, would lead to Woomera becoming the hub of early space activities in Australia.
The “space age” truly dawned in October 1957, with the surprise launch of the USSR’s Sputnik 1 satellite beating the US into orbit. A space race between the two Cold War superpowers commenced, with Australia poised to participate in the openly scientific and covertly military adventure of space exploration.
Rockets, satellites, citizen scientists
Britain’s Skylark sounding rocket program (1957-1979) would become the longest-operating space project at Woomera, launching British, Australian, European and American scientific instrument packages. Australian and British researchers made substantial contributions to X-ray, infra-red and ultra-violet astronomy using Skylark rockets.
Although the WRE’s first sounding rocket program was unsuccessful, the development of the Long Tom rocket in 1958 paved the way for a succession of Australian sounding rockets operating until 1975. This program, conducted in conjunction with the University of Adelaide, carried out upper atmosphere research that made important contributions to understanding the factors governing Australia’s meteorology.
Australia was also ideally located, geographically and politically, to host facilities for the two networks planned to track America’s proposed satellite, Vanguard. These were: Minitrack (a radio-interferometry system), and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Baker-Nunn optical tracking telescope cameras.
Project Moonwatch volunteers, mostly amateur astronomers, supported the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s work by spotting faint satellites and establishing their orbital co-ordinates so that the observatory’s high precision camera could be then be focused on the satellite. Australia boasted five initial Moonwatch groups (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Woomera and Perth) – the first citizen scientists of the Space Age.
NASA takes over
When NASA was formed in July 1958, it assumed control of these original tracking stations. By 1970, Australia was home to the largest number of NASA stations outside the USA, hosting facilities for its orbital satellite, “manned” space flight and deep space tracking networks.
These facilities, managed and staffed by Australians, made significant contributions to the early exploration and utilisation of space, particularly the Apollo lunar program. Television coverage of Armstrong’s first steps on the Moon came to the world through the NASA Honeysuckle Creek tracking station in the ACT (with the rest of the television during the Apollo 11 mission relayed via the CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope).
Although advances in technology eventually rendered most of the Australian tracking stations obsolete, the NASA Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla, near Canberra, continues to play a major role in the exploration of the Solar System. It was the station responsible for monitoring the final hours of the Cassini mission to Saturn, which concluded with the spacecraft’s death-dive into the planet’s atmosphere on September 15.
Defence focus, and WRESAT
Defence-related space research commenced at Woomera in 1958 with the Black Knight and Jabiru programs.
Investigating nuclear missile warhead design, materials and re-entry phenomena, defence research programs continued until just before the termination of the Joint Project in 1980.
Particularly important to the Australian space story was the US-led SPARTA Project (1966-67): the generous donation of a spare launch vehicle from this program enabled the launch of WRESAT (Weapons Research Establishment Satellite), Australia’s first satellite.
With a launch vehicle available, WRESAT was designed, constructed and launched in only eleven months: a significant achievement in itself. A collaboration between the WRE and the University of Adelaide, WRESAT’s scientific instrument package was derived from the Australian upper atmosphere sounding rocket programs and helped to corroborate their findings.
Launched on November 27, 1967, WRESAT gave Australia entry into the exclusive “space club” of countries that had orbited a national satellite.
At the end of its first decade of space activity, Australia had launched its own satellite, while a Melbourne University student-built amateur radio satellite awaited launch in the USA.
The WRE had an active scientific sounding rocket program, participated in defence space projects and was supporting the European Launcher Development Organisation’s (ELDO) satellite launcher test program at Woomera.
To build on these achievements, in 1968 the WRE proposed a modest national civil and defence space program, which could have harnessed WRE and civil space capabilities towards the development of an Australian space industry. The proposal was rejected by the Gorton government on the basis of cost.
This marked the beginning of a cyclical process that has, at least in the civil sector, hindered Australia’s ability to maintain its original level of space capability, or redevelop it over recent decades.
Political parties of both persuasions have shown shortlived, underfunded, bursts of support for developing an Australian space industry, only to withdraw that support just as these programs were achieving results.
Potentially beneficial membership of the European Space Agency (the European Launcher Development Organisation’s successor), to which Australia has been repeatedly invited, has been constantly rejected, also (ostensibly) on the basis of cost.
Timeline of key events in Australia’s space activities: click on arrows at right and left to go back and forth.
The reluctance of successive Australian governments to support national space activities and a national space industry has been something of a puzzle, especially given the country’s reliance on space-based services.
My PhD research has sought to find the answer to this question within the first two “boom and bust” decades of Australian space activity. So far, no clear answer has emerged, apart from claims that “it’s too expensive”.
While an economic case could perhaps be made for rejecting a 1959 Australian National Committee on Space Research proposal for a national science program – given that Australia was then in recession – the 1968 WRE and 1970 Australian Space Research Agency space program proposals were both put forward during periods of economic prosperity. Their proposed costs represented very small fractions of GDP, and could have been affordable.
These early space program proposals had modest proposed costs, and reflected modest goals of developing a national capability in an important emerging technology.
However, there seems to have been a perception in government that committing to a space program, and/or a space agency, meant committing to high-cost ventures such as human spaceflight (which were admittedly beyond Australia’s economic means at the time).
This unnecessary assumption, which was overtly expressed in the activities that were specifically ruled out of the 2013 Australia’s Satellite Utilisation Policy, has continued to bedevil proposals for the development of national space capability.
Pragmatism, or something else?
I find it hard to accept that, as one previous article in The Conversation has suggested, the “intense pragmatism” of Australian governments has left them content to allow other nations to control Australia’s access to space.
As early as 1960, the government clearly recognised the value of space applications to the management and economic development of the vast continent of Australia, and to its national security.
Will the outcome of these two reviews be the revival of Australian space activities, at a level to equal or surpass our space engagement of half a century ago. Or will the nation continue to remain “lost in space”?
EO refers to the collection of information about Earth, and delivery of useful data for human activities. For Australia, the minimum economic impact of EO from space-borne sensors alone is approximately A$5.3 billion each year.
You’ve almost certainly relied on EO at some point already today.
EO describes the activities used to gather data about the Earth from satellites, aircraft, remotely piloted systems and other platforms. It delivers information for our daily weather and oceanographic forecasts, disaster management systems, water and power supply, infrastructure monitoring, mining, agricultural production, environmental monitoring and more.
Global positioning and navigation, communications and information derived from satellites looking at, and away from Earth are referred to as “downstream” space activities.
“Upstream” activities are the industries building infrastructure (satellites, sensors), launch vehicles and ground facilities for operating space-based equipment. In this arena, countries such as Russia focus on building, launching and operating satellites and space craft. Others (such as Canada, Italy, UK) target developing industries and government activities that use these services. The US and China maintain a balance.
Australia spends very little on space
Although we rely so heavily on downstream space activities in our economic and other operations, Australia invests very little in space: only 0.003% of GDP, according to 2014 figures.
Other countries have taken very proactive roles in enabling these industries to develop. Most government space agencies around the world invest 11% to 51% of their funds for developing EO capacity. These investments allow industries and government to build downstream applications and services from secure 24/7 satellite data streams.
there are now a number of well established and growing small companies focused on delivering essential environmental, agricultural, grazing, energy supply and infrastructure monitoring services using EO, and
EO plays a vital role in many aspects of Australian life. Australia’s state and Commonwealth agencies, along with research institutions and industry have already built essential tools to routinely deliver satellite images in a form that can be developed further by private industry and delivered as services.
But our lack of a coordinating space agency adds a layer of fragility to vital EO operations as they currently stand.
If Australia is to realistically participate in the “Space 2.0” economy, we need to act now and set clear goals for the next five, ten and 20 years. EO can be a pillar for this activity, enabling significant expansion of our upstream and downstream industries. This generates jobs and growth and addresses national security concerns.
That should be a win for all sectors in Australia – and we can finally give back and participate globally in space.
Data sources for figure “Proportion of space budget spent on different capacities”: NASA; ESA – here and here; JAXA; PDF report on China.