A draft of Australia’s first national space policy was recently considered by federal cabinet and is currently undergoing a consultation process with experts within the space sector.
The document, which will likely be called “Australia’s Satellite Utilisation Policy”, should be released early next year (though no official date has been announced).
The probable title for the report is symptomatic of Australia’s long-held approach to space matters – intense pragmatism. It also points to a continuing nervousness among politicians about the word “space”.
“Space” evokes two responses among many of our elected representatives. One is cost and politicians, especially in these times of fiscal constraint, will go to some lengths to avoid being accused of embarking on costly enterprises off Earth when there are so many pressing issues to address closer to home.
The second response is a reaction to the so-called “giggle factor” of space.
Over the years Australian politicians have been encouraged to support all manner of mad-cap schemes that have been the product of dreams. Such schemes have been characterised by poorly developed science and business cases, and a poor understanding of Australia’s practical approach to space activities.
The Decadal Plan for Australian Space Science published by the Academy of Science in 2010 exemplifies the problem. It was long on idealism but took little account of the political and fiscal realities of the Australian space scene.
Only now is a public narrative beginning to emerge which explains Australia’s critical dependency on data from satellites.
It’s a narrative that has gravitas and that’s starting to serve as a counterweight to the idealism, enthusiasm and aspirations of space buffs and others who argue for Australia to develop launch capabilities, participate in human space flight and have a NASA-lookalike space agency – the latter for purposes that usually cannot be explained.
Relying on space
The forthcoming national space policy is likely to provide a basis for Australia to play a credible role in future international discussions about the regulation of human activity in space.
Australia has a strong vested interest in ensuring access to space remains assured and secure for all nations. After all, Australia, like all other nations, is dependent on satellites for three, broadly defined services:
- Earth-observation data (such as weather forecasting, satellite imagery and so on)
- Precision Timing and Navigation (PNT) (such as GPS)
- communications, especially to remote and regional areas
There are many specific examples of Australia’s reliance on satellite technology, but the following three are among the most pertinent:
NBN Co, which is wholly owned by the Australian Government, has contracted Space Systems Loral, a large US company, to build two very capable communications satellites. These satellites will deliver high-capacity broadband services to remote and regional Australia with service scheduled to begin in 2015.
Defence is a heavy user of satellite communications to support Navy ships at sea and deployed forces in Afghanistan, Timor, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere. Defence shares one of Optus' satellites with civilian users and otherwise either piggy-backs on US systems under carefully negotiated government-to-government agreements or leases bandwidth from commercial companies on an as-needed basis.
Defence has been creative and imaginative in crafting agreements with others to avoid the costs and risks associated with owning and operating a fleet of its own satellites.
Australians, like people in most parts of the world, are increasingly dependent on the timing signals from the US Global Positioning System (GPS). The signals are ubiquitous and have become integral to the way in which we use the location functions in smartphones to know where we are and how to get where we want to be.
These signals are used by ATMs to determine the time of particular transactions and have myriad other applications, including in the nation’s critical and national security infrastructure.
Australia has a strong vested interest in ensuring the GPS is able to operate with a high level of assurance and security into the future.
The Australian Government does not own or operate any satellites of its own. Yet Federal Government agencies – most notably Geoscience Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology and research organisations including CSIRO and the universities – presently receive data from 22 Earth-observation satellites.
The data is mostly received “free to ground” under various agreements which successive Australian governments have negotiated with foreign owners and operators under “common good” provisions. To date, these arrangements have satisfied most of Australia’s requirements well enough, if not exactly and at minimal cost.
Most of the satellites from which Australia presently receives data are due to reach the end of their operational lives in the next five or so years. The government is beginning to make arrangements to access data from the next generation of satellites.
For instance, the Federal Government recently announced it had signed an arrangement with the US to cooperate on the collection, processing and dissemination of data from LANDSAT 8.
This satellite, due to be launched in January 2013, is the latest in a series of imaging satellites that have been the workhorses of Earth observation for civilian applications for at least 30 years.
This latest agreement will ensure data continuity for another decade or more.
That said, there’s an immediate need to upgrade existing satellite ground stations in Australia to allow them to receive the enormous amounts of data new Earth-observation satellites will deliver. Without these upgrades Australia will not be able to benefit from these systems which will come online from 2015.
At some point in the next decade Australia may also decide, in the national interest, to invest in one or more Earth-observation satellites of our own to meet specific requirements with much higher levels of confidence than other systems can provide.
Same, but different
Australia’s approach to space has always been pragmatic and applications-oriented. Although this has frustrated some and puzzled others, this is how things are and how they are likely to remain for the foreseeable future.
The important change is the recognition by government that a national space policy is needed to provide the basis for a coherent space narrative that makes sense to politicians and to society more generally.
Australia, in its own interests, has a role to play in the stewardship of space to ensure satellites, which perform important functions in the context of the nation’s infrastructure, are able to operate safely and securely in the future.
This is the first of three articles by Brett Biddington about the past, present and future of Australia’s efforts in space. Stay posted for future instalments.