Australian space capabilities would boost our Five Eyes role: Former astronaut

Defence is the space industry's biggest customer, says Pamela Melroy, so the Australian Space Agency must work closely with them. But first, it must find a strategy, and a home.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

A "strong sovereign capability in space" would make Australia a stronger partner in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance with the US, the UK, Canada, and New Zealand, according to Colonel (Ret'd) Pamela Melroy, a former US Air Force test pilot and NASA Space Shuttle commander.

"Australia needs to embrace this, because you're going to have a much more muscular role in the Five Eyes as a result," Melroy told the conference "Building Australia's Strategy for Space", which was organised by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in Canberra last week.

One example is space surveillance, which involves the detection, tracking, cataloging, and identification of objects in space. With new systems soon to come online, such as Space Fence, the ground-based Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) in Western Australia, and commercial systems, Melroy says Australia should not simply be passing on their raw data to the US.

"Australia can and should develop a domestic capability to generate and provide processed information -- not data, information -- that supports its own defence force in real time, but is also of much greater value to our Five Eyes partners," she said.

By coincidence, the conference has been scheduled just weeks before the forthcoming launch of the Australian Space Agency on July 1, so much of the conversation turned to the agency's role.

Melroy stressed the importance of close cooperation with defence. She is now director of space technology and policy at the Adelaide-based engineering and management services company Nova Systems, who would certainly stand to profit from more defence work, but there's a broader economic argument.

"It's a really urgent priority to make sure that the conversation between industry and the space agency is both robust and candid. But it's equally important that there is that same relation with defence. Defence is the big dog, right? They're the biggest purchaser of space services in Australia," Melroy said.

Starting in 2019, for example, Joint Project 9102 will spend AU$2 billion to AU$3 billion on Australia's military satellite communications systems. Defence Project 799 will spend AU$500 million on using commercial satellite imagery for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Other projects will focus on "space surveillance operations and integration".

"It would be more than embarrassing, it would be disastrous for Australia, if the agency were to encourage technology and business development, and defence does not take advantage of those emerging space capabilities in Australia ... Australian defence must actively shift their mindset from looking overseas, and must actively consider using [the] Australian domestic space industry."

Melroy also stressed the need for a hybrid approach to defence space systems. She said that the "exquisite monolithic capability" of systems like the Wideband Global SATCOM system, SST, and Space Fence should operate in conjunction with lower-cost commercially driven systems using a distributed architecture, such as constellations of small satellites in low earth orbit, or multiple commercial sensors.

"Currently we have this fantastic capability in comms, imagery, and space surveillance, but our assets are actually very limited in number, and they're also in extremely high demand. So what that means is, for example in space surveillance, we literally lose custody of objects in space for hours and sometimes days, because we simply don't have continuous coverage," Melroy said.

"Quantity has a quality all of its own, and in this case, that quality is persistent coverage ... We simply can't afford to assume that everything is going to stay the same while we wait for an asset to be available."

More satellites also means better resilience against the threats of "space weather, debris, and malicious activity", although according to Melroy, small satellites with eight-inch telescopes "really can't match this exquisite strategic capability that we have."

Space agency head Dr Megan Clark says that its job is to transform and grow Australia's space industry, and how we use space. In a video message to the conference, she said that includes the role of space in the broader economy, including agriculture, fisheries, and mining.

"The two really important focus areas for us are how do we have an open door, how do we have that single voice and one door for the international community to engage with Australia's space industry and the space agency ... Secondly, how we engage with our industry. How do we meet our purpose? How do we grow [our current industry of] just under AU$4 billion," Clark said.

Canberra would be the logical home for the agency, according to Clark. But the states are already fighting for it. Speakers at the conference repeatedly expressed the need for cooperation and collaboration, before saying why their state or territory was the best location.

One European diplomat was astonished by the blatant rivalry, rolling his eyes. They told ZDNet they recalled Victoria's angry complaints -- including a series of angry tweets from state Premier Daniel Andrews -- when the AU$5.2 billion contract to build 211 armoured reconnaissance vehicles went to Rheinmetall Defence Australia, who would build them in Queensland. They saw the space agency site being similarly contentious.

Senator Kim Carr, the Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, told the conference that the space agency shouldn't be expected to generate quick wins.

"Anyone who expects that projects the agency initiates must turn a quick dollar simply does not understand how this kind of investment works," Carr said.

"We know that investment in research pays off, but there is a long lead time between the initial investment and the eventual pay-off. That is true of applied as well as basic research, and we must accept that if the new space agency is to operate effectively."

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