Australian government announces two space R&D programs

Following the federal government's pledge to establish a national space agency, defence industry minister Christopher Pyne has announced two new space R&D programs.

The Australian government has announced that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the University of New South Wales Canberra (UNSW Canberra) have signed a collaborative project agreement to launch a three-year space R&D program.

The AU$9.7 million program will be conducted at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA).

Announcing the program at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide on Thursday, Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne said the investment is aimed at supporting the growth of Australian technologies, as well as investigating ways to enhance defence's space capability.

Under the program, three miniature satellites will be launched, with opportunities to demonstrate innovative communications and remote-sensing payloads. Spaceflight modelling techniques will also be tested as part of the program.

"Research outputs are anticipated to provide UNSW Canberra with commercialisation opportunities, which in turn could provide opportunities to stimulate Australian space industry," Pyne said in a statement.

The program will additionally deliver space education to defence personnel.

The agreement builds on existing collaboration between the Defence Science and Technology Group and UNSW Canberra under the Buccaneer program, which saw space engineers test a miniature satellite in a simulated space environment.

A small CubeSat satellite will be launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California later this year as part of the Buccaneer program, Pyne said.

The defence industry minister announced the launch of another R&D program centring on space-borne sensor technologies.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) invested AU$2.7 million to establish the High Altitude Sensor Systems (HASS) program, which will be delivered through the Defence Materials Technology Centre (DMTC).

The HASS program will bring together commercial enterprises, as well as universities and research agencies, to work together under the DMTC, Pyne said.

The minister explained that the first round of the program will involve research as well as contributions of cash and in-kind resources of up to AU$3 million dollars -- excluding the AU$2.7 million already invested -- from four companies, six universities, the DST Group, and the CSIRO. The contributions will be invested in areas such as high frequency sensors, the management of imaging on small satellites, and maritime and ocean monitoring via satellites.

Four projects have been approved for phase one of the HASS program, which are expected to kick off by the end of 2017.

The announcement follows the Australian federal government publicising its commitment to establishing a national space agency once its review into the nation's space industry is complete.

The review was launched by the government in July to examine Australia's current capability and areas of advantage, as well as the nation's level of regional engagement and international collaboration to identify future partnerships. Additionally, the review has been assessing risks and opportunities, including access to space data and associated infrastructure. The goal of the review, which is said to be "well advanced", is to develop a 10-year plan to grow the sector and boost its global competitiveness.

"A national space agency will act as the doorway to our international space engagement, and it will ensure that Australia's domestic space industry has a strong, co-ordinated growth strategy," Pyne said at the International Astronautical Congress.

"As the space industry grows, Australian participants will become more enmeshed in the global supply chain. While this carries enormous potential for industry, we must remain good global citizens throughout.

"Australia will continue to observe and adhere to the regulatory and legal requirements of export controls. We will hold to international non-proliferation agreements -- the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the Missile Technology Control Regime, and Australia's Defence Trade Control Act."

An expert reference group -- chaired by former CSIRO CEO Dr Megan Clark -- was selected by the government to perform the space industry review, which builds on the principles set out in Australia's Satellite Utilisation Policy (2013) and the findings from the review of the Space Activities Act 1998 completed in December 2016.

The review of the Space Activities Act 1998 was to ensure Australia's civil space regulation would "effectively stimulate innovation and investment in the space industry sector", as well as secure the nation's international obligations in managing the space environment, Pyne said.

"We do need better frameworks across a wide range of access and security issues," the minister added.

"We will work with allies and partners, including those in industry, to improve the rules of space utilisation and develop space-based systems that support and enable opportunity."

The drafting process for the amended Bill has begun, Pyne said.

He pointed out, however, that there are numerous obstacles ahead such as the dramatic increase in space debris in orbit in recent years, the electromagnetic spectrum being a limited resource, and the crowding of the spectrum.

"We must look to the best and brightest in science, law, government, and industry to provide the answers, the innovation, and dare I say, the patience to deal with this and more," Pyne said.

Pyne went on to note the other reason the federal government is "closely focused on space", saying that ordered access to space is "vital if the Australian Defence Force is to function and conduct operations as a modern, networked military."

"It requires space-based positioning, navigation, and timing -- essential to controlling systems such as those used for precision-guided weaponry," the minister added.

"It needs Earth observation -- intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. This gives the Defence Force situational awareness for operations -- not only in the battlespace but to conduct vital humanitarian missions at home and abroad.

"Networked defence requires effective space-based communication for voice and data connectivity. And defence relies on space situational awareness to protect our national security interests and help us understand events in the space domain."

Pyne said such advances will improve the resilience of Australia's space systems.

The Australian federal government is additionally looking to relocate a United States optical space surveillance telescope to Australia, Pyne mentioned at the International Astronautical Congress.

In June, Pyne announced that the government will be investing AU$500 million into Defence Project 799 to enhance space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.

Phase one of the 13-year project aims to improve the Australian Defence Force's access to commercial satellites, so that satellite data can be used to support defence operations, border protection, and humanitarian missions.

Pyne said at the time that AU$14 million of the total investment will be spent on building the infrastructure required to collect imagery from commercial satellites.

"Defence's enhanced access to these satellites will increase Australia's capacity to maintain surveillance and improve situational awareness for the Australian Defence Force and other national security agencies through the provision of high-quality imagery," Pyne said in a statement in June.

"This means imagery from high-end commercial satellites, now in orbit, will be integrated directly into the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation's imagery dissemination systems, reducing the time it will take for satellite imagery to get to a member of the ADF or the officers of Australia's national security agencies."

The announcement followed the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) arguing that there is a "vital national interest" in maintaining the infrastructure, capabilities, and international relationships required to secure access to satellite data sources.

According to the SIAA, Australia is a "passive consumer" of satellite data, relying heavily on international partnerships -- such as with Europe, Japan, and the US -- for purchasing the satellite data used by individuals and businesses every day.

"A key issue in the development of our national space policy should therefore be the securing of long-term access for strategic purposes, preferably from Australian territory, to foreign-owned space-segment capabilities, both military and civil," the SIAA stated in its paper.

"As the geopolitical environment changes, Australia needs to become a technology contributor to those partnerships, or it risks significantly rising costs or, even, loss of access ... Australia would also be well advised to consider ways to reduce its dependence on the traditional data sources, and consider its own national priorities in the development of new systems."