Australian government invests AU$500m to improve space-based intelligence

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

The Australian government has announced that it will be pouring AU$500 million into Defence Project 799 to enhance space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities.

Phase 1 of the project aims to improve the Australian Defence Force's (ADF) access to commercial satellites, so that satellite data can be used to support defence operations, border protection, and humanitarian missions.

Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said 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.

"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."

In addition to creating 22 new jobs in the defence industry, the government said AU$130 million of the total investment will be spent on support contracts over the 13-year life of the project, providing commercial opportunities to Australian companies interested in satellite technology and imagery analysis.

The news follows the Department of Defence earlier this month announcing that it had signed a AU$40 million contract extension with Optus Satellite to continue using its C1 satellite for the next 10 years, and also follows the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) arguing that there 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."

Last week, Adelaide-based nanosatellite startup Fleet also called 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.

Australia is one of only two OECD countries that do not have a space agency, with the SIAA claiming that the Australian space industry amounts to less than 1 percent of the global space economy, generating $3 billion to $4 billion in annual revenue while employing about 11,000 people.

"The issue at stake isn't funding, though a government-led commitment would certainly help. The issue is a national, coherent strategy that promotes our national goals and engages Australia in the establishment of global space protocols," Fleet CEO Flavia Tata Nardini wrote in an open letter to the government.

A spokesperson from the office of Minister for Industry, Innovation, and Science Arthur Sinodinos told ZDNet last week that the federal government's focus is on ensuring "the operating environment is appropriate to innovation and development of space technologies, combined with coordination and international cooperation".

The spokesperson did not provide a clear indication as to whether a domestic space agency would be established.

"The government is also planning and preparing for the next generation of civil space technologies and capabilities by putting in place the legislative and regulatory reforms and platforms aimed at simplifying regulatory arrangements, spurring innovation, and reducing barriers to participation in the space industry," the spokesperson added.

The Australian government has been boosting its investment in Australia's defence capability and innovation; in March, it announced the launch of its AU$730 million "Next Generation" Technologies Fund, which Pyne said would help incubate "creative solutions" to protect the nation from new threats.

As part of the initiative, the government said it will launch defence cooperative research centres, university research networks, a defence research accelerator scheme, an innovation research program for small business, and expanded technology "foresighting" activities.

The federal government also announced in March that the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) will be receiving AU$75 million critical infrastructure upgrades at two of its national security facilities in Canberra.

Funded under the Defence Integrated Investment Program, Minister for Defence Personnel Dan Tehan said the upgrades would help keep Australians safer by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of operations.