As the Australian Space Agency (ASA) finds its feet in a new Adelaide headquarters, the Australian space sector has been moving from strength to strength.
This was the message from Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews at the opening of the headquarters at the Lot Fourteen Precinct in February.
An accompanying release emphasised the ASA’s goal of tripling the size of Australia’s space economy and creating 20,000 new jobs by 2030. Those job figures are roughly half the size of employment levels in Australia’s coal sector, currently our second largest export.
The ASA itself has generated plenty of headlines with a range of commercial and international partnerships in the last year. Big names include Thales and EM Solutions. Other treaties of note include an MoU with the Italian Space Agency on projects in space policy, law and regulation, space weather, space education and health care, and with the NZ Space Agency on a ‘trans-Tasman space innovation ecosystem’.
These successes appear to be largely claimed by federal politicians. Minister Andrews accompanied Prime Minister Scott Morrison to the opening of the ASA office in Adelaide, which despite its location is a federal body under the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources. That chain of command is made clear on the ASA’s website, which appears to be a single web page under the Department for Industry’s ‘Strategies for the Future’ section.
So as the ASA continues to find its feet, for small space start-ups and research centres it is often territory and state governments, rather than their federal counterparts, that do much to get Australia into orbit.
The ACT in particular has hosted much of Australia’s space presence, including famous contributions to the Moon landing and the touchdown of the Phoenix rover on Mars. The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is one of only three such facilities globally, and is run by the CSIRO on behalf of NASA. The complex, along with tracking and data relay satellite equipment in Alice Springs and Dongara, WA, are covered by Australia’s Space Tracking Treaty with the US.
The ACT government also jointly funds the Australian National Concurrent Design Facility (ANCDF) at UNSW Canberra in partnership with the French Space Agency CNES (Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales).The ANCDF and ANU’s National Space Test Facilities within the Advanced Instrumentation Technologies Centre are the only facilities in the country capable of end-to-end designing, building and testing spacecraft.
Canberra is also home to Geoscience Australia’s SBAS, National Positioning Infrastructure Capability (NPIC) and Digital Earth. The SBAS and NPIC are complementary projects under the Positioning Australia program that are seeking to provide accurate positioning services to a range of industries. Current systems can position with five to ten metres of accuracy; these projects are aiming to get that down to three centimetres in areas with phone reception.
The ACT government adds to this space weight with its Space Environment Research Centre (SERC), run at Mt Stromlo in partnership with EOS Space Systems, Lockheed Martin, Optus, several universities and Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communications Technology.
Other territory and state governments are also catching the space bug. SA is one of the most notable given it was chosen to host the ASA at Lot Fourteen.
Two commercial players emerging in SA are DEWC Systems and Southern Launch. The former is a company building electronic warfare satellites for the ADF, the latter a launch outfit setting up a spaceport.
DEWC Systems’ Miniaturised Orbital Electronic Warfare Sensor System (MOESS) project will use Southern Launch’s Orbital Launch Complex at Whaler’s Way on the Eyre Peninsula, expected to be operational at the end of 2020. The SA government granted the Orbital Launch Complex major project status in October last year.
Most recently, DEWC confirmed its position at the front of Southern Launch’s queue. The company will soon send a DEWC payload carrying miniaturised sensors, antennas and communications equipment up to 100 km on a T-Minus Engineering Dart rocket. The launch is a test that aims to demonstrate DEWC Systems’ ability to detect, identify and locate radar emissions through various altitudes and environments. Funding for the program comes partly through RAAF’s Plan Jericho, which is exploring rapid and affordable launch options for Defence.
The test will take place at Southern Launch’s new Koonibba Test Range, which extends 145 kilometres from the Indigenous community of Koonibba, just east of the Nullarbor. The SA state government was heavily involved in the development of the range and its procedures for use. It will be the largest privately operated rocket test range on the planet.
“The launch of the DEWC Systems payload at the Koonibba Test Range, supported by the First Nations people at Koonibba, marks the start of Australia entering the NewSpace race and a future where all Australians can truly reach for the stars,” Southern Launch CEO Lloyd Damp said.
Queensland is also looking to support space launches. It is home to Gilmour Space, run by founder and former banker Adam Gilmour from the Gold Coast. The company has chosen Queensland based on favourable trajectory analyses and the state’s ability to tap into both equatorial and polar launch markets. It has already begun launch testing of prototypes in central Queensland.
A local competitor is BlackSky Aerospace, which in 2018 became the first company to launch a commercial payload from Australia using a site in the Queensland outback. The launch button was pressed by Queensland Manufacturing Minister Cameron Dick.
In February, Minister Dick released Queensland’s Space Industry Strategy 2020-2025. The strategy outlines Queensland’s vision to be seen as an Australasian hub for launch activities, Earth observation, robotics and more.
“The opportunity for Queensland is significant,” Minister Dick said. “The state has the capability and location to develop a space industry with the potential to contribute between $3.5 billion to $6 billion to Queensland’s economy by 2036.”
The strategy notes that Queensland enjoys several advantages over southern competitors. It is ideally positioned close to the equator with large stretches of open ocean to the east, ideal for jettisoning early rocket stages. Launching eastward takes advantage of the Earth’s direction of rotation, and proximity to the equator can add 460 metres per second to rocket velocities.
Queensland also has large expanses with high speed internet connections and little radio traffic, and ground station locations in the state’s west have the capacity to scan both hemispheres. The local space industry currently employs over 2,000 people and generates $760 million per year.
The NT enjoys many of the same geographic advantages as Queensland; it is proximate to the equator, has a low population density and open expanses, and enjoys high tectonic stability.
The Territory could become the first Australian jurisdiction to have an operational commercial spaceport used by NASA. Under plans confirmed in June 2019, Equatorial Launch Australia’s (ELA) site in Arnhem Land will launch four NASA sounding rockets. ELA CEO Carley Scott has previously highlighted the advantages of the Nhulunbuy site to ADM, including a deep-water port, an airport, roads and a fibre optic connection.
Plans revealed by the Territory government identify an opportunity to collaborate with the ACT and SA under a Memorandum of Understanding on space economies. The plan is light on numbers, but the number one priority for 2020 is to support ELA’s plans for Nhulunbuy.
For all these efforts, however, two news stories emerged within hours of each other on 30 January that seemed to forecast headwinds for Australia’s space economy.
The first was of the Australian government’s decision to partially cost-recover launch permits. Gilmour Space founder Adam Gilmour told ADM that the proposed model is ‘better than expected’ but still falls short of the zero-fee structures used elsewhere, including the US.
The second was the news that the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the agency responsible for acquiring and sustaining American intelligence satellites, had done exactly that. The NRO will launch a dedicated mission from RocketLab’s launch site on NZ’s North Island – the world’s first and only private orbital launch site.
It was able to do so because of the Technology Safeguards Agreement, which allows ITAR-protected US space-related technology to be used in NZ.
“The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITARs) is a US regulatory regime which restricts the possession, use, and export of space technology – like rockets, the technology they’re integrated with, and the systems, processes, and information that supports rocket launches,” RocketLab’s Director of Global Commercial Launch Services Sandy Tirtey explained to ADM.
“Rocket Lab is bound by this law, and for almost 40 years, the US had a policy of denying orbital launch capability to any nation that did not already possess it.
“To enable Rocket Lab to gain the necessary licenses and allow rocket launches, the NZ Government entered into the TSA, which enables the use and secure management of sensitive US space launch and satellite technology in NZ.”
NZ is evidently on the front foot – the country has launched 42 satellites in the last two years, compared to Australia’s two to date.
“The NZ Government’s combination of a modern regulatory regime that safeguards launches from NZ with a drive for the economic, social, and environmental benefits inherent in the access of space to be realised for its population has been key to the success of country’s space economy,” Tirtey said.
This article first appeared in the April 2020 edition of ADM.