One of the common talking points in space circles these days is the idea of ‘Space 2.0’ – described as an emphasis on the ‘small, cheap, and many’.
Where Space 1 might be described as the era of government-run programs, Space 2.0 is commercialisation - the proliferation of small satellites and cost-effective launch capabilities that are lowering commercial barriers to entry and bringing the global economy into low-earth orbit.
This idea is not hypothetical. SpaceX has famously pioneered reusable rockets, and satellites are shrinking from chunky bus-sized blocks to cubes no bigger than a two-slice toaster.
Australia is at the forefront of this revolution. BlackSky Aerospace recently became the first Australian company to launch a rocket carrying commercial assets for testing from rural Queensland, Equatorial Launch Australia is looking to build a spaceport in the NT, and other start-ups are investigating the possibility of launching rockets from high-altitude balloons or aircraft.
In the satellite game, UNSW’s Australian Centre for Satellite Research (ACSER) became the first Australian entity to build and operate a cubesat in space, Adelaide-based Myriota is developing a nanosatellite constellation that could bring the Internet to the furthest reaches of the continent, and others are exploring new Earth observation capabilities.
Yet despite the proliferation of small satellite technologies and an overall trend towards lower launch costs, space is still a very expensive place to be.
Whilst launch costs per kilogram have decreased significantly – the space shuttle program needed roughly $83,000 to take one kilogram into space, but SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has brought that down to under $2,000 - launch demand currently outstrips supply, leading to long wait times and the financial costs of delay.
Costs are even greater for Australian companies. Current Australian aerospace regulations require companies to be insured for up to $750 million for vehicles travelling above 100 kilometres, which represents a rough cost of $750,000 per launch. In addition, Canberra requires launch companies to own and operate their own launch site, adding further costs that overseas providers don’t face.
These costs are one reason why Australian players tend to piggy-back on international and commercial projects. ACSER’s cubesats, for example, hitched a lift on a resupply run to the International Space Station. The Commonwealth funded one of the satellites (WGS-6) that forms the US Wideband Global Satcoms system in exchange for secure military communications. Defence has also partnered with Optus on the C1 satellite, which provides communications capabilities and secures Australia’s orbital filing precedence.
Australian space research is also a story of partnerships. An Australian researcher built the ‘mole’ sensor aboard the InSight mission, which touched down in the Elysium Planitia region of Mars this week. The CSIRO recently bought a 10 per cent stake in NovaSAR-1, a satellite owned by British company Surrey Satellite Technology that uses S-band Synthetic Aperture Radar to provide high-resolution images of Earth. The satellite launched from India in September.
The funding allows Australian companies to file image requests with the CSIRO for applications including bushfire fuel load management, flood management, earthquake prediction, pollution and oil spill monitoring, land and agricultural practices, geological mapping, and more.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Mick Hose, head of the JP 9102 program, Defence expects to continue using a similar platform-sharing model to minimise costs and build system resilience.
“We’ve yet to find that balance between commercial satcoms and military satcoms,” LT COL Hose said at the MilCIS conference. “But it’s not going to be one or the other – it isn’t a binary question.”
Of course, there are other cost barriers to overcome for Australian entities hoping to sign up to Space 2.0. Changes to Australian launch laws may also be on the horizon as the new Space Agency finds its regulatory feet, and Australia has significant geographic advantages (namely our proximity to the equator) that will provide a tail-wind as the local industry grows.
For now, however, Australians can expect to keep hitching lifts into the next frontier.