Australia announces plans to establish national space agency
In a bid to get into the space race, the government of Australia announced on September 25 that it plans to formally establish a national space agency. This would be a milestone sought for decades by the country’s space industry. The government says the move will help Australia cash in on the growing global space industry, worth an estimated $400 billion.
Australia is one of the few developed nations without a space agency. But not for long. Senator Simon Birmingham officially announced plans to establish a national space agency in a speech during the opening ceremonies of the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Adelaide, Australia. The plan was also announced by the government in a separate statement.
The announcement contained few details about when the agency will be established, how it will fit into the government or what will be its specific roles and responsibilities. However, Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull confirmed the agency would be “small”. “I wouldn’t want to talk it down, but it’s not NASA,” Birmingham said, following the announcement. “It will be an Australian space agency with Australian interests, seeking to generate and drive investment in Australia.”
The news comes during an ongoing review into the country’s space sector that was announced by the government in July and is not scheduled to be completed for several months. “While there is more work to be done in this review, from the extensive consultation process to date, one point is overwhelmingly clear: the case for establishing an Australian space agency is compelling,” Birmingham told reporters in Adelaide.
What is also clear is that the agency would open the doors for the country’s international engagement with so many agencies across the world’s space industries. According to Birmingham, “There’s a big role for science. There’s a big role for industry. We want to make sure Australia plays its part in both of those.” Senator Michaela Cash, Acting Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science said in the government statement: “A national space agency will ensure we have a strategic long-term plan that supports the development and application of space technologies and grows our domestic space industry.”
Jan Drobik, Minister-Counsellor for Defense, Science and Technology at the Australian Embassy in Washington, suggested the agency would be focused more on regulatory and coordination issues than major spaceflight programs. Without a space agency “there’s not a single point of contact if you want to do space operations in Australia,” Drobik said. He pointed out that New Zealand has worked to establish regulatory regimes to support space operations, like launches by US-New Zealand company Rocket Lab. New Zealand founded its own space agency last year, with the stated purpose of regulating the space industry and encouraging its development. “It’s made us come back and think,” said Drobik.
Dr. Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University, said the space agency would pay off in the long term. Newly discovered technologies can be patented and sold to the rest of the world. “We can do big things. We can go mine asteroids, we can put humans on other planets, we can go build the next network of laser cryptography where our satellite communication is direct and impenetrable,” he told Australian SBS World News. Tucker pointed out that the agency could help Australia build more of its own satellites and become less reliant on other countries for communication.
“The Australian space agency will be less about sending people into space and more about creating jobs for people on earth,” astrophysicist Alan Duffy told news.com.au. “It’s not a NASA in that regard, it’s closer to a UK space agency which fundamentally supports use and development of satellites in space.” Duffy said the idea was to “build or operate a fleet of small satellites” that can be especially tailored for Australian needs.
Australian government and industry officials welcomed the announcement. Jay Weatherill, Premier of the state of South Australia, which has a concentration of Australian space companies and related activities, announced prior to the IAC that the state would establish a space development fund at $A1 million ($800,000) a year for four years. The money would go to support emerging companies as well as scholarships and training activities.
The announcement comes after calls from the International Astronautical Federation and Adelaide-born astronaut Andy Thomas for Australia to join the industry. Around 200 written submissions have been received by a reference group while more than 400 people have been consulted across the country. The group, chaired Dr. Megan Clark, will turn its attention to drafting a charter for the national space agency with a broader strategy expected by the end of March next year.
Australia already has space capabilities. The CSIRO Deep Space facility outside Canberra is one of three sites in the world capable of tracking NASA’s deep space assets. The Australian space sector generates annual revenues of $3-4 billion and employs between 9,500 and 11,500 people, according to Senator Kim Carr. Space advocates in Australia had long sought to establish an agency, arguing the country had failed to capitalize on achievements it made early in the Space Age, such as being one of the first countries after the US and the former Soviet Union to launch a satellite.
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