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AUSTRALIA GOES TO SPACE: NOW WHAT?

05-12-2017
by 
in 

Recent developments have seen Australia's engagement with space grow dramatically. A boost in local space startups and plans for a national space agency seem sure to bring Australia in line with the rest of the world's space programs. 

In an effort to analyse Australia's unique position in the industry, the government has released three reports to help predict the future of Australia’s space industry. Their conclusions will feed into the review of Australia’s space industry underway by former CSIRO head Dr Megan Clark.

The reports examine Australia’s strengths, weaknesses, and our comparative place in the global space industry. With a range of globally competitive capabilities in areas from space weather to deep-space communication, there is a great deal of potential for growth. Australian research in other sectors like 3D printing and VR has a great deal of potential in space-bound applications, too. 

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 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, 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. Many Australian projects currently rely on the hardware and projects piloted by other nations, such as data-gathering satellites. 

Australian capabilities are the focus of a second report by ACIL Allen consulting, Australian Space Industry Capability. The review highlights 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, and the best strategies to cultivate domestic talent. What market incentives could be put in place to encourage the development of further space technology? And how should this emerging industry be regulated? 

These questions can be answered at least partially by 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.

As well as the three reports, the government recently released 140 public submissions to the panel.

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