Science experts warn Australia's 'weakest link' in space is its dependency on foreign satellites

The Australian Academy of Science has laid out a 10-year plan on how Australia can grow its burgeoning space industry.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor
Image: Imaginima/Getty Images

A 10-year plan for Australian space science published by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) has warned about the need for the country to establish its own sovereign satellite capability.

Currently, Australia depends on countries in Europe and the United States to access satellite data.

"The weakest link we have in terms of space capability is still dependent on other countries for services from satellites, particularly around whether it's positioning, navigation, timing, or observation," according to Stuart Phinn, director of University of Queensland's Remote Sensing Research Centre and founding director of Earth Observation Australia Inc.

"Having our own set of satellites would address that weakness."

Pinn said without ownership of a network of Earth observation satellites, the speed at which Australia can respond to weather emergencies, such as the recent Tongan volcanic eruptions and Maryborough floods in Queensland, would always be hindered.

"If we did have things in place, I would suspect we would have a lot more information a lot more quickly, in terms of what's happening in Tonga and the floods that we've seen in Queensland," he said.

The plan additionally recommends establishing a national program of space weather research to receive advance warning for when a major space weather event occurs to protect global critical infrastructure, such as aviation, satellites, power grids, and radio communications. The plan states that, based on Australia's current capability, the country would only receive about one hours' warning of a major space weather event.

"I can guarantee that at some point there'll be a catastrophic space weather event that will fundamentally damage our infrastructure," said Fred Menk, chair of the expert working group that developed the plan and chair of the National Committee for Space and Radio Science at AAS. 

"What I can't do is I can't tell you if that's going to be next week or in 100 years, and that is because we don't have the science which allows us to make those sort of predictions accurately.

"What we can do is we can grow science capability in Australia because we're actually experts in this field, and we have a wide range of centres distributed across Australia used for space situational awareness amongst other things, for example, astronomy as well.

"It is essential to track the vastly growing number of space objects. This is something we can do and this is something we can contribute to the world in helping maintain sustainable use of space for all of humankind, and helping predict catastrophic space weather events."

Phinn further added that being able to track major space weather events would enable Australia to examine how the country's environments are changing, which would be essential for tracking bushfires, carbon counting, biomass assessments, and marine resources, as well as for interplanetary exploration and expanding capabilities in industries such as defence. 

"Building the science capabilities that support all of these things is essential," he said.

In the 10-year plan, there is also a recommendation for a national space innovation and education strategy to be introduced, led by the Australian Space Agency, that is consistent with the national curriculum. This strategy would span the primary, secondary, tertiary, VET and industry sectors, with the aim to grow STEM participation, and improve career pathways and industry outcomes, aligned with diversity and equity values, the plan stated.

"Given the growth that we've seen over the last decade [in the space industry], and as we know as well, education is one of Australia's largest exports and it's something that we're really, really well-known for, so we have an opportunity to capitalise on this and build upon this reputation, and actually provide a world-class education in Australian space science to feed the space industry," Rocket Lab systems engineer Imogen Rea said.

When it comes to building space skills, one of the disappointing issues for Menk is the lack of Australian-focused teaching materials that are readily available to schools. 

"There are elements of space in the school curriculum, and teachers go to NASA to find resources for their teaching but that totally ignores the Australian context. What we need is curated curriculum-ready material for teachers and students in the Australian context," he said.

Phinn said this issue would be shortly addressed with the release of what he described as a comprehensive set of resources on Earth observation sciences compiled by Australian authors over three years.

"It'll be the first time we've got a set of resources that's been used in universities at the moment, but it can be used in senior schools as well. It builds on work that was done initially in the 1980s in CSIRO," he said.

"We're starting to produce that type of material which will engage with education systems in Australia to bring people along and have Australian content rather than northern hemisphere content."

In a bid to grow skills with diversity and inclusion in mind, Rea highlighted that the plan recommends for a diversity and inclusion officer to be appointed at the Australian Space Agency.

"That's really just to get to the bottom of what the different issues that exist in space science that may not exist in other areas, and really putting this as a priority, separate to the women like the STEM ambassador or the chief scientist," Rea said.

She also believes part of the solution is changing people's perception about how accessible it is to participate in the space sector.

"To change people's perspective that space is for everyone, I think it's really important for people to get out there, whether it's through the superstars of STEM program, or there's a variety of other women in STEM and diverse people in STEM activities, to really get out there and show people that they can be involved because it's really hard to be what you can't see," Rae told ZDNet.

Other recommendations in the plan include establishing a lead scientist in the Australian Space Agency, space science as a national research priority, and committing to and investing in an ongoing national space program.

The decade-long plan echoes the 38 recommendations that were made recently by the Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources, following the conclusion of its inquiry into developing Australia's space industry.


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