When we think about space, we tend to think about the fascinating and extraordinary experiences of astronauts. That is, of rockets and space stations, of space exploration and discovery, and of walking on the moon. The reality of the space industry, however, is much closer to home.
Australians engage with space and its technology on a daily basis, often without realising it. It is difficult to comprehend a world without the use of space and its applications. Space technology underpins the use of mobile phones, the internet, and GPS services. It is central to a number of Australian industries such as agriculture, emergency services and mining.
The global space industry is valued at approximately $471 billion, and is predicted to be worth almost $1.5 trillion over the next 20 years. Countries around the world are positioning themselves to maximise the social and economic benefits of this global industry, including Australia.
The Australian Government has set a goal to increase its space revenue to $12 billion and create an additional 20,000 jobs over the next decade. The aim of this inquiry was to examine how the Australian Government can facilitate this growth and best support the Australian space sector to be globally competitive while preserving and protecting the space environment.
The Australian space industry presents enormous opportunities to increase employment, strengthen the economy, and improve lives. To this end, the Committee has made 38 recommendations which are designed to overcome current barriers to growth, drive investment and commercialisation of research and development, better facilitate international collaboration, and grow a future space workforce.
There is little doubt that stakeholders are buoyed by an invigorated Australian space sector. While acknowledging the infancy of the revived domestic industry, key areas of strategic reform were identified, including:
increasing Australian Government funding
establishing a national space program and missions
Government being a primary customer for industry
aligning civil and defence space programs
improving national coordination across and between governments
greater investment in space infrastructure
The Committee heard that Australia needs a national space plan or strategy consisting of a series of space missions to grow the domestic space industry. This involves determining what Australia wants to do as a space-faring country, what capabilities are needed to do it and seeking that from the Australian space sector.
There is overwhelming support and praise for the Australian Space Agency (ASA), its establishment, and achievements to date. Notwithstanding the significant difference the ASA has made to the Australian space industry, several suggestions were put forward for improving its current structure, operation and administration. These include establishing the ASA as a statutory authority, separating its industry engagement and regulatory functions, and improving education and awareness of regulatory processes including the provision of regulatory guidance documents.
The upcoming operational review of the ASA is a timely opportunity to consider the issues raised by the domestic space industry. The Committee recommends that important consideration be given to the status of the agency, its future funding and operational requirements needed to support and potentially exceed the stated 2030 goals of government.
Over the next decade, the Australian Government will invest around $7 billion in defence space capabilities under its 2020 Force Structure Plan. A common theme in this inquiry was that Australian defence and civil space priorities and programs should be better aligned and coordinated. This is because space and defence are closely related and interdependent. It was argued that by recognising the existing civil-defence space relationship and supporting its growth, technology and expertise will flow between the two sectors, and production and adoption of new systems and IP will accelerate and be mutually beneficial. Furthermore, given Defence’s access to considerable funding for R&D and capability development, and the civil industry’s wealth of academic research and private entrepreneurship, both sides have a great deal to gain.
Growing the Australian space industry
A sovereign space capability will enable Australian industry to design, build and maintain its space requirements. This will foster the development of skills, expertise and ‘know-how’, position Australia as a globally competitive player, strengthen national security and defence capabilities, and stimulate innovation. It will also help to grow the economy and assist in post-COVID recovery.
Underpinning calls for sovereign space capability is Australia’s reliance on the space assets and capabilities of other countries. This includes space related goods, services, infrastructure and skilled people. If access to these international assets is restricted or closed, Australia is likely to be left without the space based services and programs on which it depends.
While Australia has some manufacturing and technological capabilities that can contribute to the space sector, this will need to be more strategically developed and grown to sustain an industry. Stakeholders highlighted the need for Australia to develop and maintain an ‘ecosystem’ of space -related companies, infrastructure, research institutions, investment avenues, education and training streams, and employment opportunities to ensure that it has the necessary foundation to build sovereign capability.
The Committee heard that the investment of the largest venture capital firms in Australia barely match the smallest funds invested elsewhere. This means there is limited funds to strategically invest in many local space technology businesses, and it also increases the probability that space technology companies will eventually move overseas to access larger capital markets.
Start-ups and businesses not only require funding support. Ensuring availability and access to necessary space infrastructure to support industry develop, design, test and manufacture technology is also fundamental to developing the domestic industry. There is a need to examine how Australia’s space infrastructure can be incorporated into future national infrastructure plans. The Committee recommends that space be identified as a key infrastructure priority area and that a national audit be undertaken of current and future space infrastructure needs.
Supporting and maintaining the domestic space industry alone will not be enough to sustain Australian businesses nor contribute to the broader growth of the industry. The Australian space industry will need to export its products and services and connect to global supply chains. Government has an important role to play here. This includes by facilitating partnerships with primes, advocating for Australian businesses in international markets, providing timely and tailored access to funding, and ensuring the policy settings provide confidence to stakeholders to invest.
Australia can capitalise on its strengths, particularly in downstream activities. Earth observation, space based applications and expertise in calibration and validation are significant strengths that can be leveraged to position Australia in a global market. Opportunities also exist within supporting sectors as specialist space advisory services can be developed for an international market.
In Australia, it is estimated that launch service providers could contribute up to $2 billion of direct, indirect and induced value in the coming decade and beyond. Growth in this part of the sector is considered likely to contribute to between 10 – 20 per cent of the 20,000 new jobs by 2030.
Australia has a number of inherent advantages for space launch capability including its geography, environment and political stability, as well as potential interest from strategic partners. The ability to service both geostationary (equatorial) and high inclination (sun synchronous, polar orbits) satellite markets is a particular strength for Australia. It builds on the opportunity to be a primary launch location for Asia and a preferred provider for launch activities globally.
Despite the benefits of developing a domestic launch industry, stakeholders identified current challenges inhibiting the sector’s growth. These primarily relate to investment and infrastructure, and the current regulatory framework and administration. Timeliness and approval processes are also issues affecting the launch sector. A more coordinated approach to developing the nation’s launch industry, including the development of a national launch strategy would be welcomed by industry.
As with other sectors, success will depend on the ability of launch providers to market themselves globally. This means that Australia’s regulatory framework must facilitate easier collaboration with international stakeholders–helping rather than hindering space companies wanting to launch in Australia. Given Australia’s proximity to other launch destinations in the region, it must establish itself as a competitive and comparable destination for launch.
Access to space-based capabilities is critical to a broad range of Australian sectors including agriculture, telecommunications, financial services and meteorology. It also underpins the operational effectiveness of the Australian Defence Force. A consequence of this dependency is that Australia has a strong interest in maintaining a stable, secure, resilient and safe space environment.
Evidence to the inquiry suggested that space is a relatively unregulated environment or that rules and regulations are not keeping pace with the reality that space is now accessible to more nations and, increasingly, private entities.
The space environment is becoming increasingly congested, contested and competitive. In this context, ‘congested’ refers to the amount of space infrastructure and debris orbiting the earth; ‘contested’ refers to the range of potential threats—including deliberate disruption to space infrastructure and services such as satellites—posed by adversaries; and ‘competitive’ refers to the number of countries and commercial entities vying for access to and control of space and its resources.
The Committee heard about a significant increase in the amount of debris—sometimes referred to as ‘space junk’ or ‘space pollution’—orbiting the earth. Given the volume and threat posed by space debris, there were calls to address this compounding issue domestically and internationally.
Much like efforts to protect and care for the physical environment, the space environment is no different. Not contributing to the growing issue of space debris was a consistent theme in evidence. Australia has an opportunity to take the lead globally on undertaking space activities in a responsible and sustainable way, particularly as a developing space industry.
With threats to space assets having significant consequences for the way we live, strengthening capability across situational space awareness and situational domain awareness is important. Continued investment in these areas is recommended.
Research and development
Most developments and innovation in the space sector can be attributed to discoveries grounded in scientific research. Basic space science research is necessary for the development, long-term success, and competitiveness of the Australian space industry.
The Committee heard that Australian space science needs to be ‘reprioritised and funded’. National coordination of space science across government agencies, and a defined set of national space science priorities will help to inform decision making around investment and space science research programs.
Collaboration between the Government, industry and universities is essential to grow the space industry, domestically and internationally. Collaborations between commercial companies and universities (or other research organisations) can sometimes be challenging because of differing R&D strengths, key objectives and financial time frames. The Committee recommends that the model for research and industry collaboration be reviewed to ensure that it supports the best outcomes for innovation, development and industry growth.
Converting R&D into commercially viable products is one of the challenges in innovation policy. While Australia has a strong history in space R&D and a significant research base, it struggles to commercialise its R&D. There is a need to protect Australian space related IP, ensure fair access to it, and that collaborative efforts involving transfer of IP or discussion of ideas between stakeholders can occur in a secure environment.
Traditionally, those interested in pursuing a career in the space industry would leave Australia to do it. Now people are not only finding employment opportunities in Australia, there are early signs that people are coming back from overseas to continue their careers. While much of this is due to a growing national industry, it is also due to the changing nature of work within space more generally and the opportunity to work in a broader range of space related fields, particularly those associated with ‘downstream’ or ‘from space’ activities.
Space 2.0 refers to using space on Earth. It includes a range of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, remote sensing, smart sensors, nanotechnology, microelectronics, big data, robotics, drones, autonomous systems, quantum computing and the internet of things. The significance of Space 2.0 is that it will create the jobs of the future.
The skills and expertise needed to support this future workforce will need to be drawn from three key areas – within the domestic education and training sector, other Australian industries and sectors, and internationally. Strategies designed to grow a future space workforce must foster the development of expertise in these areas ensuring a positive transition from education and training to industry, and that people are ‘job ready’.
Many of the recommendations made by the Committee will go a long way to shape and develop a future workforce. Perhaps the strongest message conveyed to the Committee is that a future workforce needs to know that Australia’s space industry is not just for astronauts and rocket engineers. Rather, there are a range of professions – not generally associated with space – such as law, medicine, project management, communications and business that will all be required to support Australia’s space industry. It is this message that should be communicated and facilitated to grow an internationally competitive sector.