Australia’s space economy is set for substantial growth, according to a presentation by CEO of SABER Astronautics Dr Jason Held, who was hosted by the Royal Aeronautical Society at UNSW last week.
Dr Held, a former US Army major who served in USSTRATCOM (previously Space Command), is also a member of the Expert Reference Group advising the Commonwealth on the design of Australia’s new space agency, announced in the Budget this year.
He noted that Australian businesses currently spend $3 billion on space technology and sell $3 billion worth of data, resulting in no net economic gain or loss. However, whilst Australia has the fifth-largest research output of any nation, the result of this import economy is a poor international brand and a brain drain of experts to countries engaged in the full spectrum of space operations.
The creation of a space agency, however, will allow Australia to grow its industry and take advantage of current and upcoming disruptions to the space sector.
One such disruption is miniaturisation. Satellites have shrunk from the size of a car to roughly the size of a shoebox and can now be constructed in as little as three months. This allows for faster technological evolution, and most importantly for Australia, a start-up culture. CubeSats have revolutionised the space game, particularly for new entrants.
In the past two years, the number of space start-ups in Australia has increased from 35 to 85, making Australia’s space economy the fastest growing on the planet.
There are still constraints on this growth, according to Dr Held. Currently, the number of available launches worldwide is far outstripped by demand. The sky is also increasingly congested – over 100,000 objects are now in orbit, and all are tracked by the US Department of Commerce (this used to be the preserve of the USAF, which has since passed on the burden of being the world’s ‘space traffic cop’).
Yet these challenges also create opportunities for Australia’s nascent agency, according to Dr Held. Satellites based in Australia can track objects crossing 1/6th of the Earth’s surface, meaning there is potential to share the tracking load with the US using new artificial intelligence and automation technologies.
There are also opportunities for Australia’s space industry in two upcoming disruptors to the sector.
The next disruption, Dr Held argued, will be the ability to manufacture objects directly in space using 3D printing. This could reduce the cost of satellites to as low as $15,000.
A long-term disruption is the expansion of the human economy into low-earth orbit and beyond – space mining, for example. This is a long way off, but Dr Held argued that it should nevertheless be on the radar of Australia’s space industry as it looks to develop ‘leap-ahead’ technology.
Ultimately, he argues, the new space agency is the implementation arm of the government’s space policy. That policy should be directed towards nurturing a domestic space economy. Dr Held suggested taxing space imports to protect local companies, and setting out requirements for international firms to use local suppliers as two ways of achieving this goal.
It seems the space agency could learn from the AIC tenets underpinning the Defence Industrial Capability Plan, the Defence Innovation Hub, and other policies used to strengthen local participation in Australian defence acquisitions.
The agency, however, may also have to navigate the state-state infighting that has come to characterise Defence project bids.
Dr Held concluded by noting that Australia’s space industry is currently an experiment in the art of the possible.
“Will it work?” he asked the 100-strong audience. “That’s up to all of us.”