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Australia in space: looking out and looking in

Space exploration is one of the few science-rich human endeavours that captivates both expert and layperson alike. There is a mystery – a romanticism – associated with space research and technology that…

New infrastructure is putting the Australian space industry on the map. RSAA

Space exploration is one of the few science-rich human endeavours that captivates both expert and layperson alike. There is a mystery – a romanticism – associated with space research and technology that is arguably unrivalled by any other science.

And it’s an easy sell …

The Smithsonian Institution

But behind the beautiful images and mindbending theories, there is a diverse and booming industry upon whose products we are more dependent than many realise. And with work having just finished on the Advanced Instrumentation and Technology Centre (AITC) at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA) at the ANU, it’s a good time to take stock of Australia’s position as a space-faring nation.

The AITC is a federally-funded, national resource that goes a long way to underpinning the space infrastructure Australia has been lacking for years. Phase II of the AITC was completed last month, and Phase III will see the integration of additional operational equipment in the coming year.

The AITC is a quasi-commercial body that provides an avenue for both civilian and defence bodies to conduct research and development on new nano and pico satellites.

It also provides a focal point (yes, pun intended) for the application of the RSAA’s excellence in the design and construction of astronomy-based technical skills in optical instrumentation. These skills are applied to technologies critical to the observation of our planet not just for research, but for our national security and prosperity.

AITC phase III allows research and development on Pico satellites. NASA

But this is not a marketing pitch for the AITC. Space-related research and development matters because space science and technology are ubiquitous in, and intrinsic to, our day-to-day lives.

Mobile phones and ATMs rely on satellite information for time-stamping and GPS services. Without space technologies, our ability to predict and pre-empt weather events would be essentially non-existent. We access space assets in the agricultural sector, for mineral exploration and for environmental monitoring.

But perhaps most immediately relevant is the fact we rely on space technologies for media access that we now take for granted. Without access to space-based infrastructure, we threaten television and internet access. While this might seem frivolous at first glance, take a moment to imagine a world without (or with extremely limited) access to TV and the web.

Space science and its related technologies are now completely embedded in our lives via communication, financial, entertainment, food, weather and security systems.

But many people don’t realise the extent to which this is the case. This is partly due to a few key misconceptions about space-science and the countries involved in the space science sector:

1) “Space science” and “astronomy” are the same thing. While the ubiquitous public face of space research and activity focuses on looking from Earth to the heavens (astronomy), arguably our most critical efforts involve turning our instruments around and peering from the sky to the ground (Earth observation).

In fact, in the context of Australia’s space industry, a report commissioned by the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research (DIISR) characterises astronomy as “having synergies with space science”, but not as being a part of it. So while intimately related, “space science” does not equal “astronomy”.

Everyday technologies, such as mobile phones, rely on satellite-information Steve Kay

2) Space activity is all about NASA and astronauts. Actually, no. As exciting as rocket launches, the Hubble telescope, and sending humans to the moon are, the vast majority of our space-focused efforts are almost mundanely terrestrial. While many of the tools used for Earth observation derive from astronomical instruments, their on-the-ground uses are far more commonplace.

3) Doing space stuff is expensive. Since the early days of space development, the costs involved have limited participation to those wealthy nations able to pay for the previously huge costs. When the average person is asked to comment about the cost of space involvement, most think of numbers in the hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars.

Thankfully, those days are gone. Today it’s possible to develop useful space missions from as little as a few tens of thousands of dollars. This has come about because of the benefits of miniaturisation and our old friend, Moore’s Law – the long-term trend in computing hardware that shows the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles roughly every two years.

Instead of massive multi-tonne objects, today’s satellites are as small as a 100 millimetre cube. Even a commercially-useful mission might only weigh a couple hundred kilograms.

4) Only a handful of wealthy countries participate in the space sector. Actually, at least 55 countries have the kind of space industry infrastructure that Australia has only now completed (i.e. the AITC). This includes neighbouring nations such as Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

In addition, independent reviews of the international space landscape commissioned by the Australian Government (such as this one) reveal a thriving, and rapidly expanding international space industry with an estimated worth, in 2008, of US$250 billion.

So there’s money in the space industry, there are innumerable applications beyond pure research, and to function in a modern, first-world economy, countries rely on space-based technologies (Earth observation satellites among others) every single day.

Space science differs from astronomy and involves looking at Earth, rather than out from Earth. NASA

So how does Australia compare in this area?

In 2010, there were more than 450 organisations in Australia involved in space-related activities, with an estimated annual revenue of between $800 million and $1.6 billion. Impressive as this may sound, we still punch below our weight when considered in the context of our enormous dependence on space-based technologies.

Our government spends nearly $1 billion per year on space services. But this figure does not include the hidden costs of our heavy reliance on the goodwill of a number other countries (such as the USA and Japan) who allow us free access to some of their space-based assets for Earth observation.

So what if these arrangements stopped?

Australia has many unique geographic, resource and security challenges. We are a large, dry continent with an extremely disperse population. As such, our dependency on satellites and related technology is unavoidable. But currently we are not even vaguely self-sufficient in our capacity to meet our space science, technology and data demands.

In this way we are vulnerable to the mores and machinations of international politics.

Fortunately, the global space paradigm has permanently changed and a whole new world of opportunity awaits. Space is affordable and need no longer be dominated by wealthy nations with dreams of rockets and astronauts. Instead, almost any nation can conceive and develop cost-effective solutions to global and regional monitoring, all serving to better manage knowledge about our home planet.

But the technical challenges are possibly the least of our concerns.

In the second piece of this series, we’ll look more closely at Australia’s vulnerability and challenges in the field of space science …

This is the first instalment in our three-part Australia in Space series. Follow the links to the other instalments below.

Part Two: Australia in Space: Letting others watch us … but at what cost?