CSIRO paints why Australia needs its own national space capability

The national research agency also touted that the country is at an advantage because it lacks 'baggage'.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has advised the Standing Committee of Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources, as part of its inquiry into developing Australia's space industry that there are warranted reasons for Australia, to have its own national space capability.

Fronting the committee on Wednesday, CSRIO executive director of digital, national facilities and collections David Williams said CSIRO's advice is that if Australia wants access to timely data, it would be only possible if the country owned its own satellites.

"The way to look at it is if you have applications that demand specific timely data or ephemeral data as you're developing the outcome and you don't own the satellite, it can be very difficult to get the satellite to switch on and off at the time you want to over the location you need it because there's competition slots," he said.

"For example, geological mapping doesn't change that often, so you have less need for timely information. But for flooding, drought disasters, timely information is everything.

"Bushfire monitoring, for example, if you don't have real-time access to data, you can't do it from satellites. To have real-time access to data, you've got to have a very good relationship with another country, or you've got to own a satellite. That's a decision for government, rather than a decision for CSIRO -- we can provide advice."

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Williams further explained if Australia were to continue to rely on other countries to provide satellite services, accessing them would present its own set of challenges.

"With the high-resolution [satellites], they're not switched on all the time, they are reduced and work 10% of the time. They go around the earth in 90 minutes, and they can operate for about nine minutes of that time. The rest of the time its storing energy on solar panels," he said.

"So, you're competing for the nine minutes. And when we bought into NovaSAR-1 satellite, we bought two minutes of that nine minutes, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it is an enormous amount when you look at Australia ... we bought it specifically so we could do controlled experimentation and guarantee the data."

Williams, who was formerly chairman of the European Space Agency prior to joining CSIRO, also suggested that for Australia's space sector to excel, there would need to be focus on niche areas, such as in small launches, ground stations, and specialising in satellite builds like payloads.

Skills necessary to help build Australia's space sector was also discussed, with Williams admitting there is "a bit of a gap between someone who learns a trade to become an electrician or engineer, and then someone is then trained to run the [satellite] systems."

"[We need to] train people, what I call the high-end technicians ... who would come through with a trade and can manage and run the systems, and allow the scientists to do their work," he said.

He added that Australia's "lack of baggage" also puts the country at an advantage over its international counterparts, especially those in the startup sector.

"Some of the big companies are struggling to pivot into this small new world of doing things quickly and doing things with small rockets. The small launch market exists because the big companies can't cope with it," Williams said.

"The small satellite came along because the big companies couldn't build it at the price point that was necessary, so having that lack of baggage we can go straight to market, rather than this big development chain ... the world has really moved on in space and it's at a transition point for Australia to really take advantage of it."


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