What Can $50 Million Do? Experts Speak Out About Federal Government Funding For Australia's Space Agency

Credit: Kim Steele

A cool $50 million in "seed funding" will reportedly be allocated for the establishment of an Australian Space Agency in the next Federal budget tomorrow. The private sector will make up "the lion's share" of the remainder of funds needed to establish the agency.

Is this good enough? And what will having a Space agency really mean for Australia? Here's what the experts have to say.

Back in July 2017 the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science announced a review of the country's space industry capability, led by an Expert Review Group and chaired by former CSIRO chief executive Dr Megan Clark.

"A national space agency will ensure we have a strategic long-term plan that supports the development and application of space technologies and grows our domestic space industry," then-Acting science minister Michaelia Cash said at the time.

"The agency will be the anchor for our domestic coordination and the front door for our international engagement."

Professor Andrew Dempster is Director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at UNSW

The news that $50 million has been allocated to the new space agency in this year's budget is encouraging. Without detail, it’s difficult to say where the funds will be spent but there are things we will look for that will ensure the agency's long-term success, such as the appointment of technical people, who can proactively assess programs that lead to Australian assets in space solving Australian problems.

An area where short-term wins can be achieved would be the facilitation of the formation of space start-ups. The question of whether a budget of $50 million is enough for a capable agency can be assessed in terms of the Australian Space Research Program, which ran from 2010-2013 and did many useful things with $40 million, without launching anything directly within that program.

The launches of several cubesats and four UNSW GPS receivers in 2017 could be seen as a consequence of that earlier funding. The concern in the past has been that funding for space has been stop-start, so more important than the $50M figure will be the commitment to funding the agency over an extended period. The appointment of Megan Clarke bodes well for an agency that will have that longevity.


Dr Juxi Leitner is a QUT Science and Engineering Faculty roboticist and Research Fellow at the QUT-headquartered ARC Centre of Excellence for Robotic Vision

The proposed seed funding round sounds like a good start, an opportunity to get a lay of the land. Small projects are an important way to find out where the capabilities and problems lie in the space sector. At my time at the Advanced Concepts Team of the European Space Agency we did just that - small, short-term projects to map not just the capabilities but also the interest in capability development (for a 5-10 year time horizon) and turn the most promising ones into flight projects. Small payload-launching capabilities and small projects allow a quicker improvement of technology readiness levels but as this space is getting crowded, $50 million will only allow the agency to focus on a niche. To engage the wider community, a space agency needs big, landmark projects to “rally the troops” and build excitement.


Professor Anton van den Hengel is Director, Australian Institute for Machine Learning at the University of Adelaide

The question for Australia’s engagement in Space is not how we get there, but what we should do with the data we bring back.

The cost of getting into space is reducing at an unprecedented rate, which is democratising access to orbits. Other countries have a significant head start in the hardware and software problems about spacecraft launch and control. The democratisation of space will cause a data deluge, as the number of space sensors skyrockets. The opportunity for Australia is to build upon it’s world-leading capacity in extracting information from large volumes of data to answer questions of value for Australians.


Warwick Holmes is the Executive Director of Space Engineering with the School of Aeronautical Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering (AMME) from the Faculty of Engineering and IT from The University of Sydney

The announcement today of $50m seed funding for the Australian Space Agency (ASA) in the next budget cycle is a indeed a very positive, welcome and encouraging indication that the Australian Government is serious about establishing an autonomous and independent national space engineering/industry capability.

This shall provide a kick-start for Australia to independently develop our own space applications for telecommunications, navigation and Earth observation imagery for Australia's specific requirements.

This level of funding will encourage strong domestic space industry participation, investment and collaboration with overseas space agencies such as the European Space Agency and the German National Space Agency DLR, which have already established preliminary agreements with Australia, supporting some of our space research and industrial interests.

The most promising outcome of the ASA funding announcement will be the opportunity for Australian engineers and scientists to remain in Australia to experience “hands-on” work designing, building and testing satellites without having to leave the country. Previously, any serious space engineering industrial work opportunities for Australian graduates required working in Europe, Asia or the United States.

The funding for the ASA shall provide an Australian capability to improve satellite navigation signal precision, telecommunications and, from my perspective, the most important of all is to develop an autonomous capability for Australia to build its own Earth observation satellites.

Satellite imagery provides enormous benefit for farmers and environmental monitoring of our continent. The opportunity now exists for an Australian owned and operated remote sensing satellite to be designed and built. Currently, every satellite image of Australia, including our daily weather images come from foreign owned, operated and manufactured Earth observation satellites.


Emeritus Professor Fred Menk is Chair of the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for Space and Radio Science and is an Emeritus Professor at The University of Newcastle

News that the Federal government will commit in the upcoming Budget to establish an Australian space agency is very welcome.

Many areas of Australia’s economy rely upon reliable delivery of satellite-derived services. There is potential for tremendous growth in such applications and services. Moreover, Australia needs a coordinated approach in developing its space capability to support its strategic interests. This is about more than creating jobs – it is about creating a long-term, sustainable space economy to drive innovation, enhance Australia’s social capital, and advance national needs.

Hopefully the Budget announcements will provide the mechanism to bring together Australia’s expertise in space science, applications and technology; and education and training programs to engage in and leverage major collaborations, grow new cutting-edge industries, and better protect our sovereign interests.


Professor Peter Quinn is Executive Director, The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR)

The release of $50 million in seed funding to create the Australian Space Agency is a major landmark for Australian industry and science.

Western Australia is particularly well placed to participate in this existing new opportunity. Our geographic location, our pool of skilled engineers and scientists, and our industries developing space-capable technologies make WA a major contributor to the fundamental activities that will ensure the Australian Space Agency is viable and internationally successful.

Through the efforts of the WA Chief Scientist Prof. Peter Klinken, the Federal Government is well aware of WA’s capabilities and interests in space, and our exiting partnerships with international programs such as the European Space Agency facility at New Norcia.

We look forward to working with Dr. Megan Clark, the new head of the Australian Space Agency, to launch the Australian Space Agency program over the next few years with strong involvement from WA industry and science.


Professor Simon Driver is Head of Multi-Wavelength Astronomy at the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR)\

$50million should provide an excellent start, if invested wisely.

The space game is a highly competitive rapid-growth sector accreting global investors at a remarkable rate. With forecasts of 1000 per cent growth in the next decade, the opportunity is clear, but the global competition is already a long way ahead.

Key to Australia catching up will be three factors: building on our unique longitudinal monopoly; leveraging on our deep and ongoing relationships with NASA and ESA; and connecting through to the big mining companies and their robotics, AI, autonomous vehicles, and remote operations capabilities.

A fourth factor is to ensure the funds are not completely allocated to defense related activities, which, while important, already attract $1billion per year in Federal funds through US-linked space defence programs.

In Perth, the home of the big mining companies, we’re lobbying to establish an Australian Mission Control and Operations Centre, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, to serve the Indo-Pacific Region.

In a nutshell, a third of the Solar System at any one time lies above the Indo-Pacific region with the Australian land mass right in the middle, and that’s a guaranteed one third monopoly in the space communications sector.


Professor Zdenka Kuncic is a Professor of Physics at the University of Sydney

An Australian Space Agency presents exciting opportunities for new start-ups and new global partnerships that will leverage research and development in the STEM sector, as well as inspiring a new generation of STEM graduates.

This is critical for Australia to position itself for the imminent 4th Industrial Revolution. From next-generation satellite and communications technologies for the Internet of Things, to new AI hardware technologies for space colonisation, this marks a new era for Australia.


Swinburne University’s A/Prof Alan Duffy, Lead Scientist of Australia’s Science Channel

This announcement is historic and one that has been decades in making. There are many across Australia, and indeed Australians internationally, who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes and can celebrate today.

Details will be revealed in due course, we are told, but here’s what we know. The $50m budget is seed funding, with the expectation that it can leverage far more from industry partnerships. This space agency will support private investment in the space sector. It’s closer to the UK space agency than the USA’s NASA.

One initial technological focus of the agency will be on improving GPS, which is smart as this single improvement helps everyone from farming to fisheries.

Dr Megan Clark is a fantastic person to lead the new entity. As former head of the CSIRO, Dr Clark had to handle multiple stakeholders, detailed KPIs and forge a vision across that nationally dispersed entity.

After chairing the year-long space industry capability review, she also has more knowledge of the Australian space sector than almost anyone else. I have no doubt she will making this new space agency something all Australians can take pride in.


Professor Iver Cairns is from the University of Sydney and heads the ARC Training Centre for CubeSats, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)

Wonderful news that Australia will officially become a space nation, with an Australian Space Agency. This really important step follows Australia's recent CubeSat successes and recognises the importance of space for Australia as a nation.

The announcement of the Space Agency and its budget has few details. I hope for a broad-based space agency that supports the development of Australia's space industry, the attainment of a real and sustainable national capability in space, international engagement, and crucial domestic space research. It makes sense to use CubeSats as our main path into the international space arena, since they are powerful, cost-effective, and suitable for commercial, public good, blue sky, and security purposes. We've also demonstrated breaking the economic barrier to Australian entering space using CubeSats.

The natural place to base Australia's new space agency is in the ACT and Canberra, as the nation's capital. If not then NSW may be the most suitable state, since it contains most of the nation's space industries and researchers.


Michael Frater is Rector of UNSW Canberra

Instead of playing catch-up to the world, we can now couple our skills and expertise in space with our excellence in quantum technologies, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems, to become a world leader in many existing and new aspects of the international space economy.

UNSW Canberra is happy to have played a key role in shaping the remit of the Australian Space Agency and we encourage the Australian Government to look toward the Canberra region’s considerable world-class space technology, expertise and infrastructure that will help the domestic space industry compete and lead in the global sector.

Canberra is the logical choice as headquarters for the new agency, given our city has the largest concentration of space-relevant decision makers, diplomatic communities and industry bodies in the country. We also have a thriving business start-up community with a strong interest in the space economy, as well as new upstream and downstream and information-based business opportunities.


Professor John Close is Head, Department of Quantum Science at ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering

The Australian Space Agency is an important investment in Australia’s future. It will provide opportunity, impetus and focus for experts across Australia in academia, government and industry to develop Australian research, innovation and industry in space technologies.

It will contribute to Australia’s human capital through the training of a new generation of scientists and technologists with a focus on space and through the further development of national and international collaborations and networks with a focus on space technologies.


Professor Daniel Shaddock is from the Department of Quantum Science at ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering

Despite having technology and talent that is on par with the best in the world, it can be an enormous challenge for Australians to partner in international space missions.

The announcement of an Australian Space Agency goes a long way to removing these barriers and will unlock the potential of a generation of scientists and engineers.


Professor Christine Charles is Head of the Space Plasma, Power and Propulsion Laboratory, Centre for Plasmas and Fluids at ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering

Small satellites have become increasingly important in servicing the requirements of space communications, space technology development and pure scientific research.

For the past 20 years ANU has been developing key satellite technologies and advanced testing infrastructure in collaboration with industry (Airbus Europe, Lockheed Martin in the US), space agencies (ESA and NASA) and many universities worldwide. We are ready to further develop these within an Australian Space Agency.


Dr Brad Tucker is a Research Fellow and Outreach Manager at Mt. Stromlo Observatory at the Australian National University

A Space Agency is more than just building big missions to far away places, it is solving real world problems in our every-day lives. This investment from the Australian government is a commitment to Australia’s future.

I am exciting to see what the future of the Australian Space Agency holds and what it holds for Australia. Here at ANU, we are planning big things and looking forward to being a national resource for Australia on Earth and in Space


Professor Matthew Colless, Director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics

Government funding for an Australian space agency is good news for the country and for the national space industry. It is a positive first step towards developing a capacity that Australia will certainly need in the 21st century.

The ANU looks forward to the opportunity of working with the new space agency in providing research and policy advice. Mount Stromlo offers key facilities for Australian companies and universities that are looking to develop space capabilities.

The ANU is also training young Australians in the skills the country will need if we are to succeed in exploiting the last open frontier. We warmly welcome this important and exciting development.


Professor Anna Moore is Director, Advanced Instrumental Technology Centre (AITC) at ANU and a Member of the government’s Expert Reference Group

As a member of the Expert Rerefence Group, I’m very happy to see this level of investment to start Australia’s space agency. This reported investment is sufficient to appropriately grow the agency, establish international partners, and to provide seed funding for current and new business focussing on space activities here in Australia.

Australia has a lot to offer in the space area through existing capabilities and geography. Through establishment of this agency, Australia can reap the reward possible via the $400 billion a year global space market.

ANU has established capabilities in space and has been working in this arena for many years. ANU hosts the national space test facility at Mount Stromlo. ANU groups are participating in the NASA missions including the GRACE Follow-on, joint missions with JAXA, and the LIGO research into gravitational waves. ANU is ready to work alongside the Australian space agency in the years to come.


Professor Michael Smart is Chair of Hypersonic Propulsion and Head of the Hyshot Group at The University of Queensland

It is an exciting time for the Australian Space Industry. Not only are there many opportunities for Australian companies to make and launch satellites, but Australia will at last have its own space agency.

An Australian Space Agency is critical for two reasons; first, for setting the right regulatory environment to enable high tech activity to flourish; and second, to support development in areas where Australian has a distinct advantage.

One such area is the launch of small satellites, which is projected to be a US$13B industry over the next 10 years.

The University of Queensland is at the forefront of the push to launch small satellites from Australia, through the commercialisation of its 30 years of hypersonics research. Hypersonic technology has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of satellite launch through reusablility.

Instead of throwing rockets away each time they are used, these vehicles can fly up and back to space like a plane. This is a sustainable and cost effective way to support the ever-growing world-wide space industry, and a great opportunity for Australia to foster high tech jobs.


Professor Brian Schmidt is Vice-Chancellor of ANU

The investment in a new national space agency is an exciting development in Australia’s space story and as the nation’s university we look forward to playing a leading role in its establishment.

We have long supported efforts to bring a national focus to space and have worked alongside our industry and business partners for many years to advance the nation’s space capabilities.

ANU is home to important national facilities including the space test facility at Mount Stromlo and the Siding Spring Observatory in NSW and has built collaborative international partnerships with agencies including NASA and the European Space Agency.

We look forward to bringing our extensive cross-disciplinary capability to support the agency and its initiatives and its activities.


Professor Malcolm Walter is founding Director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales

This is an important initiative. While a lot is being done here in the space sector, in both research and application, the lack of a single point of contact has inhibited relationships with major international partners. There are many significant opportunities, including in major programs such as planetary exploration.


Professor Andy Koronios is UniSA Dean: Industry & Enterprise

There is a compelling case for the Space Agency to be based in South Australia. SA has a vibrant space industry ecosystem with more than 60 SA-based organisations involved in commercial space activity.

A significant component of this includes new start-up companies, such as UniSA spinout company, Myriota, in which Boeing and Singtel recently invested $20 million.

This innovation is underpinned by world-class R&D in facilities such as the Defence Science & Technology Group, UniSA’s Institute for Telecommunications Research and the University of Adelaide.

South Australia is also leading a national effort to establish a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) in smart satellite technologies which will further attract industry and government funding for next generation satellite technologies and spawn new Australian companies.

SA has been the cradle of what promises to be Australia’s next big industry and is fully supported by multimillion dollar State Government investment.


Russell Boyce is Director of UNSW Canberra Space and member of the Government's Expert Reference Group

The global space industry is now worth AU$420 billion per annum and growing by 10 per cent each year. The Australian Government’s ongoing commitment to the space industry is welcome, and we look forward to playing a leading role in the innovation, education, operational and commercial activities that will grow the space sector.

UNSW Canberra Space has over $20M of investment, successful spacecraft in or soon to be in orbit in partnership with Defence, and the commercial spin-off Skykraft to extend R&D to operational and commercial outcomes.

Thanks to a recent MOU between UNSW Canberra and the Australian National University, Canberra possesses world-class space infrastructure with the ability to provide end-to-end design, manufacture, test and mission plan, and design and control capability for Australia’s next generation of nano, micro, and small-scale satellites.

This ability is based on the spacecraft test facilities at ANU’s Advanced Instrumentation Technologies Centre and on the new Australian National Concurrent Design Facility at UNSW Canberra developed in partnership with the French Space Agency, CNES, and the ACT Government. Just yesterday CNES and UNSW signed a Letter of Intent during President Macron and Prime Minister Turnbull’s meeting in Sydney to use the facility to study the development of a hyper-spectral remote sensing microsat that will be capable of monitoring the health of the Great Barrier Reef.


Professor Steven Freeland is Dean of the School of Law at Western Sydney University and a member of the Government's Expert Reference Group chaired by Megan Clark

It is very positive to hear that the Government is likely to allocate significant resources towards the initial establishment and development of the proposed Australian Space Agency.

I have just returned from a series of meetings at the United Nations on legal issues relating to space activities, and Australia is regarded as an important participant in the regulation and conduct of the exploration and peaceful uses of space.

Many countries are interested in the expertise and infrastructure that exists in this country, and the establishment of the Agency, with an excellent head of the calibre of Megan Clark, will further contribute to international cooperation that, ultimately, will give rise to additional opportunities for Australia and for Australians to actively participate in the global space economy, which is growing at almost 10 per cent annually.

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