A detailed rendering using NASA space imagery of Australia at night. Image: iStock/Getty Images
A detailed rendering using NASA space imagery of Australia at night. Image: iStock/Getty Images

Australia has launched itself into the space market after six decades of helping other countries surf the stars, but with a limited track record of its own. Instead of playing catch-up, the nation sometimes known as Down Under now hopes to blaze its own path up above.

Seed funding for space ventures of A$41 million (US$30.4 million) was approved on Tuesday in the federal budget, with A$26 million (US$19.3 million) allocated for a national space agency and the balance for unspecified international space investments.

The goal is to incubate space start-ups that can compete in niche markets, especially the design and operation of small payloads such as low-orbiting satellites. China and India are among several countries competing to meet this demand.

It’s not the first time Australia has shot for the stars: in 2009 almost the same sum was allocated for a space research program that ended five years later with few concrete or astral achievements. A better outcome is expected this time as the envisaged space agency will create a platform for collaboration.

“It will provide opportunity, impetus and focus for experts across Australia in academia, government and industry to develop Australian research, innovation and industry in space technologies,” said John Close, head of the Department of Quantum Science at the Australian National University’s Research School of Physics and Engineering.

A space rocket engine is displayed at the 68th International Astronautical Congress 2017, Adelaide, September 28, 2017. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

“It will contribute to Australia’s human capital through the training of a new generation of scientists and technologists with a focus on space and through the further development of national and international collaborations and networks with a focus on space technologies.”

Getting the country’s 388 commercial contractors, 56 research institutions and two dozen government scientific agencies to work toward a common agenda will be a challenge as long as most are locked into offshore supply chains feeding programs run by organizations like the European Space Agency (ESA) and National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA).

Many of Australia’s 10,000 trained space technicians and researchers are directly attached to these bodies; stopping the brain drain is one reason the scientific community wanted a new national space agency established.

“The most promising outcome of the [space agency] funding announcement will be the opportunity for Australian engineers and scientists to remain in Australia to experience ‘hands-on’ work designing, building and testing satellites without having to leave the country,” said Warwick Holmes, head of Sydney University’s space engineering unit.

Pooling this intellectual capital might give Australia a head start as it sets out to catch up with bigger players in the space.

According to Bryce Space Technology, a US-based space specialist that produced a global space industry report for the Australian government, the “global space economy” was worth US$344 billion in 2016, of which the satellite industry accounted for US$260.5 billion.

For the non-satellite space industry, the US earned US$47.5 billion, China US$10.8 billion, Europe US$10 billion, India US$4.3 billion, Russia US$3.6 billion, Japan US$3.5 billion and the rest of the world US$3.2 billion, the same report said.

Australia’s space industry is believed to be worth US$2.3-$2.9 billion, and relies heavily on revenues from applications, especially for integrating data sourced from space into communications.

A deep space tracking dish in Australia. Image: iStock/Getty Images

Research into photonics, quantum cryptography, optical design and adaptive optics, and the use of space imagery in a range of industries, are already well-established.

Australia has the capability to design and manage satellites — in 1967 it became only the fourth country worldwide to launch a satellite on its own territory — but not to actually manufacture large satellites.

The country also has only a limited ability to design and make launch vehicles, even though it has sent plenty into orbit from the Woomera rocket range in South Australia.

Established in 1946, the range’s nine launch sites were the second-busiest worldwide behind Cape Canaveral by the 1960s, when NASA established a Deep Space Station near Woomera that played a key role in the Gemini and Moon missions, helped by tracking facilities across the continent.

Now a leading authority on the command, telemetry and communication of deep space programs, Australia is involved in more than 30 active missions that draw upon an important competitive advantage: location.

“In a nutshell, a third of the solar system at any one time lies above the Indo-Pacific region, with the Australian land mass right in the middle, and that’s a guaranteed one-third monopoly in the space communications sector,” said Simon Driver, head of Multi-Wavelength Astronomy at the International Center for Radio Astronomy Research.

Stars above Uluru Kata Tjuta national park’s Ayers Rock, Northern Territory, Australia, May 26, 2016. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

A private launch facility being developed by Equatorial Launch Australia near Gove in the Northern Territory will be the closest to the equator apart from an existing space center in French Guiana that is used by the ESA and International Space Station. Launches near the equator can deliver payloads 20%-40% bigger into orbit than from higher latitudes.

Australia is also the only country that provides a range of data assurance in the Southern Hemisphere, which is vital for calibrating instruments.

Deep-space activities will continue, but the research community wants the industry to concentrate on designing and building small satellites in low orbits that are used to supply Earth imagery. This market segment was worth only US$2 billion in 2016, but is growing by 11% annually.

The government has allocated A$260 million (US$193 million) for data satellite applications, including A$225 million (US$167 million) for precise positioning technology that will be used to improve operating efficiency and boost automation in the mining, agricultural and transport industries. Research in sectors like 3D printing and virtual reality are also being translated to space.

Even these niche markets will not be easy to develop in an increasingly competitive marketplace. A study commissioned by the government found that start-ups were hampered by limited access to financing and low economies of scale. Federal seed money may help Australia’s fledgling space sector, but big challenges still lie ahead.