How to launch a space agency

Australia’s announcement that it would launch its very own space agency was heralded with much jubilation from the scientific community. However, little has actually been said about how the nation will step forwards to create this national body.

What information we do know was provided by the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Arthur Sinodinos at the 68th International Astronautical Congress Industry Day Luncheon in Adelaide on the 26th of September. In his speech to the Congress, Sinodinos discussed the Expert Reference Group which has been tasked with reviewing Australia’s space industry capabilities and reporting its findings back to the government in March 2018. It will be chaired by former Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) chief Dr Megan Clark.

I have heard people ask ‘Why even have a review?’” Sinodinos said.

Well, the space industry of today is not the same as it was a decade ago, and likely not the same as it will be a decade from now. It is crucial that we take the time now to understand that landscape and create the structures and policies – and the agency – that are right for the industry of today and tomorrow, not the industry of yesterday.

So what is the way forwards when it comes to preparing for the industry of the future today? Michael Brown, astronomer at Monash University told In Situ Science that while waiting for the conclusion of Clark’s review before announcing any details was sensible, how Australia proceeds would ultimately be determined by the scope of the agency’s ambitions.

A key thing is making sure the budget matches those ambitions. If the ambition is way out of step with the budget and remit of the agency, then we’re destined for failure,” Brown said.

Mt Stromlo Observatory, Australian Capital Territory. Photo: John Edwards/Wikimedia Commons

Brad Tucker, research fellow and outreach manager at Mt Stromlo Observatory at the Australian National University, added that the approach be methodic. He suggested forming a roadmap of the goals in stages: where we want to be in five years, 10 years and 25 years.

One thing we have to realise is that we don’t have to do it all in one go. We’re not going to go from nothing to NASA overnight. That’s not going to happen,” said Tucker. “There are ways of ramping up infrastructure, support and funding that can happen over a gradual increase and that we can build into a large group doing lots of things, but it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to happen immediately.

Collaboration and coordination

According to Penny King, Australian Research Council (ARC) future fellow at the Australian National University and past science co-investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory mission (Curiosity Rover), we don’t have to start from scratch and can tap into the expertise found at other space agencies. Making formal links with other agencies such as the European Space Agency (ESA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on a country-to-country level will make difference in how Australia moves forward.

Linking with those agencies that have those capabilities is crucial. And then talking to the agencies that have successfully linked in the past is also crucial,” King said.

Australia can further tap into local expertise through agencies such as the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), Geoscience Australia and the CSIRO. The creation of a centralised body will be useful to organise scientists and engineers in different fields, bridging their varying perspectives and jargon, she added.

Tucker suggested that the first stages of the space agency should involve the country working as a whole towards a few key projects, goals and ideas. He also stressed that we should focus on developing the base level of satellite infrastructure, support and development, allowing a blossoming industry to further grow.

We don’t want to try and be doing different things and doing everything at once. We should not worry about things such as astronauts any time soon… It’s really a stepping stone. You want to go up the ladder. You don’t jump for the top, so we really have to go up each rung,” Tucker said.

Reversing the funds flow

With Australia already sending significant amounts of money to overseas space agencies for essentials such as government satellites, telecommunications and GPS, these funds can be reallocated back into developing local capabilities and building satellites within the country. Australia can also partner in international space endeavours meaning that local contractors are eligible for work done within Australia, providing a net economic benefit back to the country.

We already have an astronomical instrumentation industry… There are satellites where we should consider whether we are partners in those satellites in the future. For instance, we make extensive use of Japanese weather satellites at the moment. Should we be partnering with the Japanese on those satellites?” Brown said.

The facilities Australia currently has, such as Tidbinbilla and Parkes, are not enough, according to Tucker. Mount Stromlo however has made great strides in reducing overseas reliance by allowing the federal government to test satellites on local soil.

That made a big change. It reduced costs because previously you’d have to go overseas. We need more of those things. We need to be able to build more of these satellites, even building them for private companies. We’re trying to do that so they can have their own infrastructure here and not pay overseas rates,” Tucker said.

Money for future discoveries

A better funding framework for research grants is also important, so those doing experimental prototypes, development or even fundamental research can develop their findings into much larger things.

If you don’t plant the seed and water it, it’s never going to grow. We need to plant little seeds – that’s the ideas and the projects. Really the water should be the space agency, giving support and letting it grow into something big. That’s how we take off into doing very big things,” Tucker said.

An issue with cutting edge research such as this is that it is impossible to tell what will work and what won’t, he added.

The problem we have now is that we can only do things that we’re pretty confident in working. We don’t have a lot of time for experimentation and research so to speak and we need that.

The European Space Agency’s New Norcia Station in Western Australia. Photo: ESA/Wikimedia Commons

King gave advice along the same lines, arguing that current timeframes for research grants are simply not long enough.

The timeframes involved in developing instrumentation and being involved in missions are longer than the timeframes that most small start-ups or the government can allow… For example, I’m a university researcher and Australian Research Council (ARC) grants are three years. If I don’t get my ARC, I have to say ‘Oh sorry, I can’t be on your team anymore’. It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you have to be on the team for seven years before the mission is a go. Then there is also additional time while the mission is active,” King said.

Having a space agency with a longer timeframe suitable for space exploration that can support times needed to develop instruments is important. Tucker says that a model paralleling NASA’s would work, with different research centres located across the country each specialising in a different field.

Uniting different facilities and different specialists allows us to become experts in building these things, doing it more quickly and more efficiently… This is how space is going. We’re not spending a billion dollars to build a satellite that takes 20 years or more. We want to spend $2 million and churn out a satellite in three to six months,” Tucker said.

Regardless of how we proceed, the fact that Australia is moving forwards with a space agency is thrilling.

King summed it up by saying, “I just think it’s exciting from a perspective of looking at Earth, looking beyond, creating new ways of exploring, and understanding our place in the universe and life in it.”


MiklosArticle by Miklos Bolza

Miklos Bolza graduated with an honours degree in science from UNSW (majoring in maths and physics), now works as a freelance science journalist, and can’t wait until space tourism really ramps up.

Feature Image: Parkes Radio Telescope. Robert Kerton/Wikimedia Commons


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