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.
An expert review of the Australian space industry’s capabilities to participate in a global market was announced last week by the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Arthur Sinodinos. He said the aim is to “develop a long-term plan to grow this important and exciting sector” and report in March 2018.
Interestingly, the words “space agency” do not appear in the announcement, but this was addressed later when the minister spoke to the media.
The space community had been expecting an announcement of this sort for some time. Many expected one to be made for maximum impact at or near the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) to be held in Adelaide in September, when Australia’s space community will be on show to the world.
That frustration was voiced by the Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Labor Senator Kim Carr, when he said Australia “desperately” needed to move towards having its own space agency.
This is a little rich, as Labor had the opportunity to go to the last election with a comprehensive space policy that included an agency, but failed to do so (like every major party). The 2016 NSW Labor Party Conference event asking if Australia should have a space program (at which I presented) did not lead to substantive action.
In commissioning a review that will not report until next March, the federal government has effectively ensured that there will be no Australian space policy of any merit to discuss at September’s IAC conference.
Australia will not have a space agency, or even a plan for one, when the eyes of the space world are on us. When all that international attention has disappeared next year, the idea could be shelved yet again.
That all sounds rather negative, and may imply an expectation that nothing substantial will happen as a result of this new review.
I have been in the space sector in some capacity since the 1980s and, despite there being many strong reasons (at least 10) to support an agency, I’ve seen this type of thing happen over and over again without result.
Reasons to act now
But this time around there are real grounds to expect that things should be different. So what are they?
First, there is what you might call the “Rocket Lab” effect. When a company started preparing to launch rockets from New Zealand, the logical reaction from the government there was to create an agency, effectively trying to build an industry around this project. In other words, the innovators forced a response from government.
Arguably, this effect is stronger in Australia. Several startup companies are effectively putting the same type of pressure on the Australian government. Two that recently achieved early funding are Fleet in South Australia (doing the “internet of things” from space) and Gilmour Space Technologies in Queensland (launching small satellites). There are at least a dozen others.
Second, an Australian space agency makes more sense now than ever before, with the emergence of what has been called “Space 2.0”. The old paradigm of big, expensive satellites and big, clunky agencies has been disrupted by easier access to space and the increasingly commercial use of space. Australia can leapfrog the old way of doing things, because most local start-ups are working on Space 2.0 applications.
The small satellite market causing this disruption is growing at more than 20% per year and will be worth about US$7 billion by 2020. Nanosatellites or “cubesats” are fundamental to this growth.
Recently, three cubesats deployed from the International Space Station were the first Australian-built satellites in 15 years. The story of my team establishing contact with two of them after they were initially silent was a great feat of engineering.
So Australia is already participating in Space 2.0 – we have active nano-satellites launched and innovative companies funded.
Third, the committee appointed by Sinodinos has a healthy number of members not aligned with traditional agency thinking. These include David Williams from CSIRO. He set up the UK agency, which is a good model for Australia to follow given it is focused on industry growth.
Also on the committee are local entrepreneurs Jason Held (Saber Astronautics) and Flavia Tata Nardini (Fleet), who run small companies with new approaches to space.
The absence of large multinationals has been lamented by some commentators, but not by me. The Communications Alliance is a voice for Australian’s communications industry, including those involved in the satellite industry, and its chief executive John Stanton was quoted in a Communications Day newsletter saying the review was “remarkably light on industry participants”.
Fourth, most of the case for an agency has already been made by the SIAA in its recent white paper. This does much of the new review committee’s work for it, and allows it to use the time between now and March to try to define the role and structure that any agency will take.
Fifth, the current government has already shown a willingness to facilitate growth in the sector by reforming the Space Activities Act. Although the Act is primarily regulatory, and its reform is an exercise in removal of red tape, the move will genuinely make it easier to run space businesses in Australia.
There is a groundswell of activity right here, right now, with a critical mass of brilliant young minds developing a 21st-century space industry, but needing supportive infrastructure to make it happen.
In other words, the environment and timing are right for the establishment of an Australian space agency. This review is just one small step towards that goal. At least it’s in the right direction, but is it necessary at all?
With Labor’s only complaint being that an agency is not being launched soon enough, bipartisanship on the issue seems assured. So why not take the giant leap?
Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW
The Outer Space Treaty (OST) is the framework multilateral treaty that establishes the principal rules regulating the exploration and use of outer space. Established in 1967, it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
But now we need an update. While the fundamental principles set out in the treaty are vitally important to the peaceful and orderly use of outer space, the pace of development of space-related technology – which allows for activities far beyond the contemplation of those that put the treaty together – means that some activities in space may fall between the cracks.
50 years of OST
For 50 years, the OST has largely allowed for a consideration of the interests of both the space “powers” and the space “have-nots”.
In 1967, the Cold War superpowers were continuing to develop inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of destroying entire cities and taking the lives of all their inhabitants. In that context, the OST set a delicate balance between the strategic interests of the US and the USSR in space. At the same time, the OST elevated the interests of humanity in outer space above the parochial interests of individual states. Appearing in person for the signing of the treaty, US President Lyndon Johnson said:
This is an inspiring moment in the history of the human race.
Indeed, the treaty has (thus far) successfully created an environment that has prevented warfare in space. Its binding provisions are not only legally defensible, but have also historically reinforced an overwhelming political dynamic to refrain from overt military action in space.
The treaty is, however, expressed in broad statements of principle; such as, that the exploration and use of outer space “shall be the province of all mankind” – or “humanity” in more gender-enlightened times. This was necessary in the geopolitical context. Broad statements of principle were sufficient to regulate relations between space-faring states in the first several decades of space exploration and use, while allowing some flexibility to those same states.
However, as space has become more accessible and commercialised, those broad statements of principle are, in our view, still necessary but no longer sufficient. They need to be supplemented – but not replaced.
Adapting the OST
At a time of heightened global strategic tensions, relative insularity and increasingly diverse vested interests, the prospect of new, legally-binding instruments seems remote, at least in the short term. Even the common mistrust that united space powers in the negotiation of the OST in 1967, is today fractured by uncertainty about the promises, prevalence and purposes of great powers and their allies. This is particularly the case with respect to an impending sense among some observers – which we do not necessarily accept – of the “inevitability” of armed conflict in space.
So, where could we find the mandate to champion the cause of new legal instruments to supplement the broad principles of the OST? To adapt global space governance to the needs of the next 50 years?
It is future generations who have the strongest claim to preserve and even improve the benefits from the peaceful exploration and use of outer space over the coming decades. They have at least a moral – and, arguably, legal – mandate to insist that states seriously consider supplementing the OST. And the opportunity for the next generation to state their claim is right here, right now.
At the SGC, a group of young Australians will lead a working group of delegates from across the globe, to develop and propose a set of supplementary protocols to the OST, in order to adapt global space governance to the needs of the next 50 years.
Crafting instruments that address the current and foreseeable future challenges in global space governance will not be easy. The challenges are not just big, they’re existential.
Stephen Hawking recently suggested that humanity must become an inter-planetary species to escape climate change on this planet, which threatens to make the Earth environment increasingly incompatible with human existence.
Climate change is not the only threat – an asteroid impact could wipe out our species, and one of the regular solar events in the life of our Sun could severely disrupt satellites and terrestrial networks and electronics. We can’t control that, although we could do something about human-generated space debris, which may make valuable Earth orbits unusable for millennia to come.
But who should be responsible for space debris and how? What laws should apply to humans living on another planet? Who has legal authority to take timely action to divert an asteroid on behalf of the whole planet?
Furthermore, if states continue to develop means of space warfare, in addition to the many pre-existing means of warfare on Earth, we might still be the authors of our own demise. But how do you regulate “space weapons” without undermining “the great prospects opening up before mankind as a result of man’s entry into outer space” (the opening words of the OST)?
The global space industry is already worth over US$330 billion and generates hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Even in Australia, a 2015 report commissioned by the Government estimated that the space industry here generated $3 billion to $4 billion in revenue. Possible future commercial mining of the Moon and asteroids potentially involves trillions of dollars.
Furthermore, space is becoming democratised – accessible to all – through small satellite and small launcher technology. Can we find ways to share the benefits of outer space, as well as the responsibility for preserving it?
The working group at the SGC face a difficult task in articulating new rules to supplement the broad principles set out in the OST. However, they represent important stakeholders who, more than any state, have a moral mandate to champion changes to adapt the OST to the needs of the next 50 years. We wish them great success.
What an amazing time for space exploration. The picture of the solar system from my childhood is now complete, as seen in this great family portrait produced by Ben Gross, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and distributed via twitter.
I love this image because it shows each world in close-up, using some of the latest pictures from space exploration. As we celebrate seeing Pluto for the first time, it’s remarkable to think that this completes a 50 year task.
It has been NASA that has provided the first close-up views of all these worlds. Here’s the rundown:
Mercury: Mariner 10 (1973)
Venus: Mariner 2 (1962)
Mars: Mariner 4 (1965)
Jupiter: Pioneer 10 (1973)
Saturn: Pioneer 11 (1979)
Uranus: Voyager 2 (1985)
Neptune: Voyager 2 (1989) and
Pluto: New Horizons (2015)
But science never stays still. When New Horizons left Earth in January 2006, Pluto was a planet. Later that year an important reassessment was made of the Solar System and Pluto became the first of the dwarf planets.
The Planetary Society’s Senior Editor, Emily Lakdawalla, has teamed together the ‘Not-Planets’. These are the close-up views, shown to scale, that have been captured of the largest moons, asteroids and dwarf planets.
It clearly shows that there are many diverse and interesting worlds to explore beyond the eight planets of our solar system.
New Horizons is the first spacecraft to start exploring the Kuiper Belt, an icy realm of objects orbiting 5 billion kilometres or more beyond the sun. It’s the chance to observe a dwarf planet, something distinct from the terrestrial planets and the gas giants.
It was in 1992 that astronomers discovered Pluto was not alone. The first Kuiper Belt Object, designated 1992 QB1, is a 100-kilometre sized object that orbits well beyond Pluto.
Now more than 1,000 objects have been detected in this realm, and the belt likely contains many more. Most are small compared to Pluto, but there are some stand-outs such as Quaoar, and the dwarf planets Eris, Makemake and Haumea.
Don’t forget to phone home
The suspense of the mission has certainly been high. To maximise the amount of data that New Horizons could collect, the spacecraft did not communicate with Earth for the duration of the flyby. As described by Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman, it was the moment when you let your child free.
The team had prepared New Horizons, told it what work needed to be done and in that radio silence they had to trust that all would go to plan.
Just before 11am today (AEST), New Horizons checked in – showing it to be the perfect child to the relief of its many anxious “parents”. It was only a brief phone home, but in that short time the scientists confirmed that all telemetry was spot-on, the spacecraft followed the path that had been set for it and there were no error messages recorded on any of the systems.
No data was transferred in that brief connection, but it was established that the main computer system, which records all the data collected by the spacecraft, showed the expected number of segments had been used. In other words, data had been collected.
We will soon see Pluto and Charon in even higher resolution. Their geology will be mapped, the surface compositions and temperatures will be measured, atmospheres will be probed and new discoveries will be made.
A love note from Pluto
It’s also been wonderful to see the public become so enthralled with the latest image from Pluto. Humans are incredibly good at spotting patterns and it seems that Pluto wears his heart on his sleeve for us.
I’m also equally intrigued to discover that the smooth part of Pluto’s heart is made of carbon monoxide ice. This was already known from ground-based observations, except never before seen in such detail. It’s reassuring to have a good match between the old and new data.
But look again … is it a heart or something entirely different stealing the show?