Australia's space sector wants policies introduced to ensure satellite sovereignty

But the community wants it done in a way that will not hurt the sector's growth.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

The Australian space and satellite sector has urged for the Australian government to introduce policies and regulations to ensure there is compliance within the industry, without hindering potential growth opportunities.

These calls have been vocalised by the likes of Optus, Nova Systems, and Vocus, with each making submissions as part of a Standing Committee inquiry into developing Australia's space industry.

Vocus noted in its submission [PDF] that the Australian government should pursue policy and regulatory settings for the space and satellite sector that develop and maintain sovereign capability for both civil and defence space applications, while also incentivising private sector investment and local industry development.

"Government policy settings should be set in such a way as to promote and maximise private investment and develop private industry. Private sector investment is fundamental to enabling competition, building scale, and developing capability which will deliver the best outcomes for consumers, businesses, and government agencies," Vocus stated.

Similar recommendations [PDF] were made by Optus, which highlighted it was "important that Australia maintains an Australian-based and operated satellite capacity, particularly with regards to national security capabilities", and urged for the Commonwealth to make it a priority while also ensuring that administrative and regulatory frameworks are "fit-for-purpose and not burdensome on the space and satellite sector".

For Nova Systems, an Adelaide-based engineering and management services company, it believes introducing regulation would provide "certainty" as the local space sector continues to develop. 

"Australia's legislation should be supported with tools and resources which enable industry to efficiently meet their legal obligations," the company wrote in its submission [PDF].

Nova Systems highlighted that regulation is particularly necessary around requirements for launch facility licence and launch permit applications as, in their current state, they "provide minimal guidance on expected content and intent" and could result in "significant differences in expectations between stakeholders" and "significant uncertainty of cost and schedule" for applicants.

Companies that wish to conduct launches in Australia are currently required to apply for these licences under the Space Activities Act 1998. However, the onus remains on the applicant to provide the information required under the Act. Since the establishment of the Australian Space Agency in 2018, there have been 16 applications made for launch facility licences and Australian launch permits, a significant jump from the one launch and one return approved during the period 2001-2014.

Nova Systems suggested a possible way around this could be tailoring the process. 

"Inherently low risk to public safety or the space environment undertaken with small investments need not be subjected to the same process as large commercial endeavours with higher levels of risk. If possible, tailoring of the process could apply to the level of independent assessment industry is required to obtain, the size, detail and type of documentation required and the processing timeframes," the company said.

Meanwhile, Optus recommended that the amount of documentation required to apply for these licences be reduced to encourage greater commercialisation in the industry.

One of the other key priorities that need to be considered by the committee, according to ViaSat's submission [PDF], is the role that policies and regulations could play to ensure there is equal access to spectrum.

"The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) created rules 20 years ago that were based on the existence of only 3.5 NGSO (non-geostationary) systems and were based on very different technology than is being employed today. These rules are critically out of date and the associated rules on the national level are not in place to protect against this NGSO interference threat," it said.

"These … must be strengthened. Otherwise, the operation of NGSOs threatens to unduly constrain the capacity and throughput of the GSO (geostationary) systems that provide critical commercial and Defence capabilities throughout Australia."

Viasat cautioned that if this was not handled promptly, "Australia may find its ability to implement or authorise satellite systems restricted by the actions of other jurisdictions and administrations, and its ability to control its own natural environment compromised".

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) also made a submission [PDF] to the committee. It said that for Australia's space sector to maintain long-term competitiveness, ongoing support is necessary for the space science sector, something which it believes is lacking. CSIRO highlighted, for instance, that the Australian Space Agency does not have a science-specific program but believe it is necessary to drive the long-term success of the sector.

It added that Australia's space sector could do with more than one space mission. 

"A single space mission is not sufficient to catalyse and sustain such an industry; instead, a long-term pipeline of opportunities is required," CSIRO recommended.

SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) echoed similar remarks, pointing out that government-endorsed national space research is "essential for this discussion" but does not currently exist. The consortium of universities and other research organisations argued that the industry would function more efficiently if there was an agreement on national space research priorities, instead of numerous public-funded programs at national and state levels.

"It must be recognised that funding organisations need to meet their own objectives, however coordinating priorities at the national level also has clear advantages in helping focus the application of resources on areas delivering the greatest national benefit," SmartSat CRC noted in its submission [PDF].

"Given a number of space research strategies and roadmaps already exist, and more are under development, this is largely a consolidation activity but identifying common interests and priorities may also help identify critical areas worthy of additional funding."

On the point of developing space satellites, technology, and equipment, SmartSat CRC warned that funding and other necessary support needed to be consistent to avoid a stop-start notion and sporadic funding. It pointed to the Defence shipbuilding coming across an issue where there were long gaps between orders, which led to "dangerous loss of skills and capabilities and impaired international competitiveness".

Airbus also wants to see a national approach to Australia's space strategy be developed so that direct lines of departmental responsibility are clearly outlined and cooperation can occur between civil and defence programs.

Alongside this, Airbus wrote in its submission [PDF] that it wants to see an official definition of "sovereignty" be established in order to ensure commercialisation is central to the Australian Space Agency's mission with strong links to international partners established, among other recommendations.

The company said it is looking to "substantially increase sovereign industrial space and defence capability in Australia", and believes that this can be achieved through a combination of prime contractors working with SMEs.

In Geoscience Australia's submission [PDF], it took the opportunity to identify potential barriers of growth that could hurt Australia's space industry. These included risks to ongoing access to critical satellite data, ability to assure customers of product quality, support for export of space applications, shortage of local skills, and access to space data tailored to local and regional needs.

Taking these potential barriers into consideration, Geoscience Australia said the nation could overcome them by maintaining an open data policy for any satellites Australia supports by using public funds; establishing an ongoing national capability to coordinate and drive the development of a national network of quality assurance facilities for space applications; establishing an ongoing program that supports Australian innovators to tailor products and services developed for local markets to meet the needs of export markets, while also working with international partners; encouraging more individuals to seek a career in STEM; and establishing satellite ground stations in Australia's Antarctic territory.

The Australian Space Agency, which is responsible for whole-of-government coordination of civil space matters, emphasised in its submission [PDF] the opportunity to grow in Australia's space sector would have spill-over benefits to other industries, such as agriculture or assisting with bushfires.

"Space 2.0 is an enabler and part of the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' … this rapid transformation of industry and the space sector is one of the many reasons why Australia can harness a greater share of the global space economy," the agency said.

"There are a growing number of business opportunities and Australian businesses have a range of capabilities that can diversify into the space sector. This means that, unlike traditional systems and structures for involvement in space, government's role can be one of a partner and facilitator."

The Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources adopted the inquiry in November after it was referred to by the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews to see how the Australian Space Agency could achieve its goal of tripling the size of the sector to AU$12 billion and create an additional 20,000 jobs over the next decade.

Chaired by Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce, the committee will specifically examine the opportunities presented by Australia's space industry, and what is required to strengthen support for domestic and international space-related activities, including the development of space technology and equipment, commercialisation of research and development, future workforce requirements, and international collaboration.

Deadline for submissions to the committed closed on January 29. 

More Space News from Down Under

Editorial standards