Australian Space Assets: scattered and small but a good foundation for growth
Australia is a serious player in space, evidenced by our national space asset footprint and the international importance of a number of these facilities. But, compared to our international peers our capability is scattered and largely sub-scale and, in some instances, siloed by national security, state boundaries and commercial interests.
To take advantage of the global growth trajectory of the space sector Australia has made progress including new infrastructure delivered under the Space Infrastructure Fund, including three proposed orbital launch facilities, world class defence capabilities at Exmouth and Edinburgh and a critical ground station network for communicating with satellites. However, Australia needs to take full advantage of the growing opportunity and leverage its existing capabilities and infrastructure.
Firstly, consolidation and focus are required, particularly in funding, something that is common in emerging markets. While the grants available to the space sector have enabled a broad ecosystem of companies to establish and flourish, they will not provide scaled, long-term growth. Government funding needs to transition to contracted work to give a few select companies the opportunity to grow to medium and even ‘prime’ scale, with others forming part of the broader supply chain with specialist capabilities.
Defence procurement is currently the most promising area for these types of contracts with over $13b budgeted across four key space programs in the coming decade. However, Australia currently lacks infrastructure at the scale required to deliver many of these projects on shore. To service the defence market this will require a transition to larger Low Earth Orbit, Middle Earth Orbit and Geostationary class satellites, a capability which only currently exists in a small number of nations – the United States, Canada and Western Europe. This level of capacity takes time to build and develop.
Civil investment is another opportunity for Australia to significantly grow its space sector. Remote sensing satellites which can monitor and manage environmental impacts, water, natural disasters – all areas Australia is already funding – could be enhanced through developing space technology.
This is not to say government must solely fund the space industry, but rather catalyse private investment by providing consistency and confidence in future programs
Underpinning the above is a need for state-level coordination. The European Space Agency (ESA) for example, employs a collaborative and multi-jurisdictional strategy to uplift regional capability which can sustain growth and foreign involvement where appropriate.
Similarly, the United States have a clear local brand for where their capabilities sit: Houston for Human Space Flight, California for Robotics and Cape Canaveral for Launch to name a few. The proven success of this collaborative region-based model can unlock great opportunities for Australia as it further develops its space sector, uniting each state towards a common goal of positioning the nation on the global stage.
The final piece of the puzzle is developing a skilled workforce that can meet the demands of the industry. This not only requires local institutions to provide trained professionals, but the ability to bring in a significant number of experienced international professionals to provide capacity and train local teams.
These changes will not only service Australian market demands but create key export opportunities into international markets, particularly across the Asia Pacific, that are at the beginning of their space sector journey.