Australian government promises national space agency

The Australian government has announced its commitment to establish a national space agency, following consultation with industry.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

The Australian government will be establishing a national space agency once its review into the space industry is complete, it said on Monday.

"A national space agency will ensure we have a strategic long-term plan that supports the development and application of space technologies and grows our domestic space industry," Acting Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Michaelia Cash said in a statement.

"The agency will be the anchor for our domestic coordination and the front door for our international engagement."

In July, the Australian government launched a review into the nation's space industry with the goal of developing a 10-year plan to grow the sector and boost its global competitiveness.

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

The government said the review is "well advanced" after receiving nearly 200 written submissions and consulting more than 400 people through roundtables in each state and territory.

The reference group -- which includes professor Russell Boyce, Michael Davis, Dr David Williams, Dr Stuart Minchin, Professor, Steven Freeland, Professor Anna Moore, Dr Jason Held, and Fleet co-founder and CEO Dr Flavia Tata Nardini -- will now develop a charter for the space agency for inclusion in the wider strategy being established by the end of March 2018.

"The establishment of a national space agency is an important shift in attitude that shows the federal government is now starting to take the potential of space, and Australia's burgeoning role in it, seriously," Tata Nardini said on Monday.

"Having a recognised, government-backed space agency means that Australia's footprint in the global space industry is going to get bigger and more formalised. We'll be able to collaborate more closely with other nations on space missions, have stronger strategies that support and propel space startups, and greater definition around our own space activities and intentions.

"A space agency will ensure Australia has a cohesive space strategy that both supports our current space tech organisations, but also fosters innovation and creates environments for Space 2.0 startups to have a greater chance of success."

The Australian Labor Party also on Monday revealed plans to establish an Australian Space Science and Industry Agency aimed at doubling the size of the national space industry and "creating 10,000 new high skill, high wage jobs in advanced manufacturing, research, earth observation and space technologies."

The first phase of Labor's Australian Space Science and Industry Plan additionally involves the establishment of a Space Industry Innovation Council to serve as an advisory board and a Space Industry Supplier Advocate for "opening up opportunities for space companies, attracting investment, and jobs".

"Currently the Australian government has over 90 programs worth AU$1.3 billion in annual expenditure that currently rely on earth observation from space data, including the defence, communications/GPS, meteorological, and agricultural sectors," Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Kim Carr said in a statement.

"It is in Australia's national interest to build our own capabilities in these areas, not only to meet current and future needs, but also to mitigate the risk of these services becoming unavailable.

"By contrast, the Turnbull government has slashed public funding for Australian space activities and has commissioned yet another, unnecessary review of Australian Space policy. Australia does not need another review."

According to the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA), Australia is one of only two OECD countries that do not have a space agency. SIAA claims the Australian space industry amounts to less than 1 percent of the global space economy, generating $3 billion to $4 billion in annual revenue, and employing around 11,000 people.

Globally, the space sector has grown at a CAGR of 9.5 percent each year from the late 1990s to 2015.

Tata Nardini in June penned an open letter to the Australian federal government, calling for the establishment of a dedicated space agency in Australia to help boost economic and employment growth, strengthen national security, and inspire the next generation of space innovators.

Tata Nardini, who previously worked as an aerospace engineer in Europe, said at the time that the next industrial revolution is going to start in space.

"Emerging space technologies and the data they return will usher in mass-scale efficiencies here on Earth, shifting industries like mining, logistics, technology, farming, mobility, connectivity, and environmental care, for good," she wrote in the letter.

The review was launched 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.

SIAA stated in a paper recently that 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, including for insurance assessment, managing natural disasters, and weather forecasting.

The SIAA argued that there is a "vital national interest" in maintaining the infrastructure, capabilities, and international relationships required to secure access to satellite data sources.

"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 said.

"Furthermore, 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."

Communicating a similar sentiment, Tata Nardini said a government-backed national space agency will also make it easier for local innovation and space businesses to stay local.

"No longer will space startups like Fleet, or Gilmour, or Saber Astronautics have to rely 100 percent on overseas and private parties for support, be it financial or assistance on things like to market strategies, technology development, or the establishment of international relationships," she said on Monday.

Tata Nardini also previously highlighted the importance of nurturing the next generation of space innovators.

"We'd also love to see space and the opportunities it will bring in the national STEM curriculum to inspire the next generation of space entrepreneurs and enthusiasts; this is critical if we are to thrive in the global space industry for years to come," she said.

"We need to create the foundations for our future generations to carry on, and improve on, the work that we're doing today."

The South Australian government recently announced it would establish the South Australian Space Industry Centre aimed at fuelling space industry innovation.

In August, South Australia also signed a five-year agreement with the Australian Capital Territory to push for a dedicated national agency, which the Northern Territory has also sought to join.

"Many people think 'space' is about astronauts and rockets. It so much more than that, it has become part of our everyday lives -- from our daily weather forecasts to using our mobile phones," South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill said in a statement earlier this month.

"As an industry, space is growing at more than three times the world annual GDP. The potential is enormous and opportunities abundant."

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