The final frontier, Down Under

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  Last updated March 15, 2018 at 10:44 am

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Australia already has a prime position in space, and a space agency will help us push the advantage, Alan Duffy explains.


Credit: NASA


You check the weather forecast, looks like rain, better take the umbrella. Walking towards your destination you check your phone for directions, realising you need cash you stop by an ATM and then make your way to your friends to watch on TV the live stream of a match half a world away. An ordinary day, made possible by using an extraordinary place – space.


The space industry is vital for everything from geostationary satellites providing the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather models with the data they need, to Global Positioning Satellites to provide maps on your phone, and communication satellites that relay live TV signals around the world.


Even your bank’s ATMs are underpinned by satellites, as made clear when it went wrong in Indonesia in 2017 and 15,000 machines were out of action after just one satellite failed to point at the county correctly.


Although it’s ubiquitous to our daily lives in Australia, we usually never even notice or think about how extraordinary that is. Nor how quickly this has occurred. After all, it was only half a century ago, on 29 November 1967, that Australia became the third country in history to design, build and launch its own rocket – WRESAT.


And although our space race has taken a back seat from the heady days of NASA’s Apollo moon shot (watch the ABC Catalyst episode on it here), Australia still plays a critical role in the final frontier.


Have spacecraft – will travel


Today Australia is returning to the satellite business as a result of two trends. First, falling rocket launch costs championed by private players like SpaceX, as well as local companies like New Zealand’s Rocket Lab and Australia’s Gilmour Space Technologies, make it cheaper to get a satellite to space.


This is combined with the second trend of miniaturised electronics driven by insatiable consumer demand for ever smaller smartphones, that now means a small cube-sat no bigger than a microwave oven is able to perform observations from space that previously demanded a car sized behemoth.


Cheaper launches of ever-lighter, more capable craft now make it possible for universities, even schools, to consider launching a cube-sat that can do real science.


How do you know your newly built cube-sat can withstand the rigours of space? Australia’s national facility at Mt Stromlo, SERC, is able to test that your spacecraft can survive a harsh vacuum, as well as shake it around as badly as a rocket launch will.


If you don’t feel like building the spacecraft yourself, that’s OK. Start-ups around Australia have formed to service the growing demand for satellite services, such as Fleet and Saber Astronautics.


There are even the beginnings of a plan for the country’s first space port, which would see us once again blast off from Australian soil in the Northern Territory, thanks to Equatorial Launch Australia.


NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex near Canberra. Credit: NASA


Location, location, location


Our location in the southern hemisphere has given us the perfect opportunity to collaborate with the major northern hemisphere-based space agencies.


Australia is home to NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex near Canberra, tracking satellites from Voyager to Cassini’s final moments plunging into Saturn, as well the European Space Agency’s New Norcia Tracking Station which was critical to monitoring the Rosetta mission to explore a Comet.


Gilmour Space Technologies has also recently announced a partnership with NASA, which will see it collaborate. The two organisations will work together on various research, technology development and educational initiatives, including testing of rovers at the Kennedy Space Centre in the US.


Australia has a legacy of cutting-edge radio astronomy, mapping the observable Universe with CSIRO Radio Facilities (ASKAP, Parkes, ATCA), Sydney University-led Molonglo telescope, as well as the international Murchison Widefield Array, which can handily track space junk by watching it reflect ABC TripleJ radio back to Earth; cool video) and of course the Square Kilometre Array.


And we’re not just remotely observing space, we are performing experiments there too. In fact, Australian schools can remotely control science experiments on the International Space Station thanks to Cuberider, while in a national first, SHINE will see Swinburne University and Haileybury School launch a full science mission to the ISS.


Don’t cross the streams


To make use of all that data from new satellites better to map, monitor and understand our land and oceans, are national efforts such as the Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information, as well Australian-based internationals like Digital Globe. This split between those who design, make and launch the spacecraft and those who take that data, and all the ways it can be used, is called Upstream and Downstream, as the data flows from orbit down to the surface.


Currently beyond Upstream defence applications by organisations such as UNSW Canberra, the majority of current work and that likely for the foreseeable future will be in Downstream applications – finding new ways to analyse and use the data collected – if only because it’s cheaper and quicker to create a new app than it is a new satellite.


When you consider that everything from fisheries and agricultural services to bushfire mapping is a Downstream user of satellite data, then the sky really is the limit.


To infinity and beyond


It may not feel like it in your everyday life, but space is closer than you think, and Australia is trying to be part of this next economic as well as scientific frontier.


The global value of space in 2016 was estimated at US$345 billion of which Australia’s share was US$3-4 billion representing 0.6 to 0.9 per cent of the global market, far below our nominal share of the world economy of 1.7 per cent. So at the very least we would want to see the value of space in Australia double, if only to conservatively reflect our activity in the world economy.


The potential benefits are huge, not only economically, but also boosting employment to staff this booming industry.


Enter the new Australian space agency. This isn’t about launching people into space, it’s about creating jobs for the people back on Earth. The mission is simple, if not easy: be the focal point for the nation.


Bring together the start-ups with multinationals (or “Primes”) such as Lockheed Martin, the users of space technologies with the makers, and the young space engineers with the old hands around the world.


It’s an exciting future, built on a proud historical legacy, that supports our economy and science today.


Australia’s space agency will have a major impact on science, and society, boosting jobs, collaborations and opportunities overseas for space companies. In this special feature, we take stock of Australia’s current role in space and what the future might look like – for the space industry, for science, the young professionals pursuing their dream jobs, and for the country as a whole.


Keeping satellites in the loop


The space jobs of the future


What the Australian space agency must do


A young professional’s view of space


Looking up for our future in space


 




About the Author

Alan Duffy
Associate Professor Alan Duffy is an astronomer and physicist at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. He's also lead scientist for Australia's Science Channel. You can find him on Twitter @astroduff.

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Science and technology is as much a part of our cultural fabric as art, music, theatre and literature. They play a significant role in our daily lives, yet, in a world dependent on science, we often take them for granted. Australia’s Science Channel believes every citizen has a right, and a responsibility, to be informed, and our mission is to create programs to bring that about.


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