Moonshot: Will Australia’s space sector benefit?

By on 6 November, 2019

NASA’s Artemis and Gateway missions will take astronauts back to the Moon and aims to establish a permanent presence to further Mars ambitions.

This article appears in the October/November edition of Position Magazine.

In late September, the federal government announced that it would invest $150 million for the next five years in local businesses to support NASA’s plans to return to the moon and to go on to Mars.

The investment will be managed by the Australian Space Agency. It is designed to make Australian businesses more competitive in international space supply chains, a market that is worth $350 billion annually.

At the time of writing, few details are available. It may be good news for small local enterprises working on cutting edge technologies, and may be great news for US aerospace companies with a presence in Australia, such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.

The Australian Space Agency’s agreement with NASA will see a federal funding injection for Australia to develop technology the US agency needs for future missions.

Should spatial practitioners be interested? The industry is, after all, a consumer of numerous space-based technologies. Positioning, timing and remote sensing sourced from space are the basis of many a dataset and many a measurement. Space-based communications can make distributed data acquisition possible in many interesting scenarios.

Space, version 2.0

There are reasons why. In the last decade, space technology has changed. So-called Space 2.0 has arrived. It’s now possible to create economically interesting projects with smaller payloads because of improved miniaturisation of electronics, better software and better communications systems. Smaller payloads mean smaller rockets and thus lower launch costs. More automation of both space and ground segments means terrestrial infrastructure to command and control the payload is also cheaper. The long term operational costs of a space mission have reduced by orders of magnitude.

In short, the barriers to entry to the space business are so cheap that small-scale startups, with a few tens of millions of dollars in investment funds, are now serious players.

The government is certainly interested. After 30–odd years of lobbying, politicians, if not bureaucrats, have become converts. The Commonwealth will spend $10 million per annum over the next four years to establish the Australian Space Agency.  The Coalition’s 2018-19 budget included $300 million for space-related activities. So the new $150 million offer adds up to a substantial injection of cash into the industry over the next five years.

In return, the government expects jobs and growth. The target is 20,000 new jobs in the space sector and eight per cent per annum growth in the value of the sector, so that it’s worth $12 billion to the national bottom line by 2028.

Is this likely, and will it make a difference in the spatial industry?

Gilmour Space is an upstream Australian space company forging ahead with innovative hybrid rocket technology.

Australia’s space ecosystem

It is important to start with a distinction. Some space activities occur in space; others occur on the ground. The UK Space Agency terms these respectively upstream and downstream activities. Clearly, the spatial industry is far more invested in downstream activity, but Australia already has entrepreneurs in both sectors.

Gilmour Space testing their One Vision rocket.

A typical upstream company is Gilmour Space. In June 2016, the company successfully flew the country’s first privately developed hybrid rocket to an altitude of 5km using proprietary 3D printed fuel. Since then, Gilmour Space’s Peter Kinne says the company has raised a total of $24 million in funding from venture capital firms, and received R&D grants in Singapore and Australia.

Mr Kinne says the company has plans to launch its first rockets to Low Earth Orbit by 2022. An attempted launch earlier this year failed to clear the launch pad, although the company says it learned a great deal from the failure.

There are many players in the Australian downstream sector. The most significant is Geoscience Australia, which received $260 million for space related activities in the 2016 budget. The money will primarily cover the creation of a Space-Based Augmentation System. It will be a highly sophisticated affair capable of receiving signals from all six existing GNSS that cover Australia. It will enable 100mm accuracy anywhere in Australia.

GA will also host Digital Earth Australia (DEA). With $13 million a year in funding, DEA will provide access to Earth observation data from satellites, especially historical data which can be used in trend analysis.

Graeme Kernich, chief executive of FrontierSI, said that DEA has important industrial objectives as well. “It will catalyse Australian companies to be even more competitive on the global stage. This is aligned with the ASA objective, to make it easier for the Australian space industry to get things done,” he said.

“Industry is looking for the agency’s support in lowering barriers to entry, opening doors, presenting a united front to the world, facilitating connections. Through all these activities we will see a stronger case for investment by industry and government in space applications.”

In addition, expertise in Earth observation is threaded through other government agencies and in many small enterprises. A submission by Stuart Phinn from Earth Observation Australia to a recent government enquiry about the ASA cautions the ASA against assuming that DEA is the only repository of EO expertise. “DEA represents an important, though relatively small portion of Australia’s offerings,” he said.

However, there is nothing revolutionary in these downstream programs. They use space in the way Australia has traditionally used space, that is: we do something clever with data created by foreign operators and, usually, paid for by foreign taxpayers.

In no sense, do these programs amount to a national capacity to generate data or to control how, when or why it is collected.

It’s not for want of any alternatives. Since the 1950s, when the British were firing rockets out of Woomera, small, enthusiastic teams of Australian engineers and scientists have tried to put space projects together without budget or resources. A few have succeeded. Mostly they have been defeated by the indifference, if not the downright hostility, of the mandarins in Canberra.

A new hope

Still, hope springs eternal. Maybe this time will be different. Nascent Australian space companies are pinning their ambitions on the ASA. The agency has developed a plan called Advancing Space, the Australian Civil Space Strategy 2019-2028.

The plan sits on four pillars: international cooperation, increasing national capability, regulation and inspiration. Canberra has much experience and a long track record of success in international cooperation, regulation and even inspiration, and there is no reason to suppose that their efforts in space will be any less significant. Indeed, the ministerial announcement of an agreement with NASA is evidence for that.

A spokesperson for the agency said the investment will focus on three integrated elements that will lift Australian engagement in the global space sector. “It will provide demonstrator and pilot projects which showcase investment-ready Australian capabilities to NASA; provide for the Agency and NASA to identify how Australia can support NASA’s mission; and finally, it will support access to international space supply chains that support NASA,” she said.

Voices of dissent

In the matter of increasing national capability, however, Canberra’s bureaucrats have a long record of failure. There are plenty of people with long experience in space who believe this time will be no different.

“To address the significant challenges faced by Australian companies, the current $15 million funding level over three years is not enough to make a significant step towards achieving the growth goals for the Australian space sector outlined in the Space Strategy,” said Conrad Pires, chief executive of Picosat Systems.

Brett Biddington, a long-time space industry practitioner, used a recent thesis at the University of New South Wales, to study Advancing Space in detail. His view is that its numbers are unreliable. For starters, the government’s goals for the space sector are not as grand as they seem. Tripling the size of the local industry by 2040 will do no more than maintain the status quo. The global space economy will triple by about the same amount over the same period.

In a 2017 paper, the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) advocated doubling the Australian target, which would have brought Australian industry to two percent of the world total.

Moreover, Biddington says these targets are based on some very rubbery numbers. Is the current Australian space industry really 0.8 per cent of the global total, which is about $3.94 billion. Biddington says half of that total is taken up with direct-to-home TV via communications satellites. The only thing Australian is the people who pay the money.

The same might be said of the satellite broadband and mobile communications sector (30 percent of the total). His numbers seem to suggest that genuine space activity amounts to no more than 10 percent of the alleged total. Almost all of this is downstream activity. It’s dozens of small enterprises in earth observation, positioning, ground station operations and equipment manufacturing. The local operations of US and European aerospace companies add some heft to the numbers.

These results should not really surprise us. Most surveys of the industry are undertaken by lobby groups with an agenda. Inflating the size of the industry is common. In a 2010 Report, Earth Observation from Space in Australia, ACIL Tasman estimated that Earth observation from space contributed at least 3.3 billion to Australian GDP in 2008-09. A decade later, ACIL Allen valued the entire space industry at $3-4 billion.

“These figures seem difficult to reconcile,” Biddington said.

The 2017 ACIL Allen Review was commissioned to inform the decisions of the Expert Reference Group that went on to recommend the formation of the ASA. The review listed 388 entities as belonging to the industry. Biddington’s research suggests 11 percent of the listed entities had ceased to exist by the time the document was released. Nineteen single-person consultancies were among the 388 entities. Of those that do actually exist, it’s hard to imagine why many were included in the list: Cray Supercomputers is not an Australian space company – it’s a US-based computer manufacturer. IMP Printed Circuits Pty Ltd is an Adelaide-based company that makes circuit boards.

“There is nothing on the company’s website to suggest it has an interest in space or that it is in the supply chain of satellite manufacturers,” Biddington said.

Whether it’s helpful to introduce an industry assistance plan with such rubbery numbers is a moot point.

Roger Franzen, one of the few people in Australia who can boast a life-long engineering career in the space industry, is even more trenchant in his critique of the Advancing Space plan. He says the industry funding is totally inadequate. He says similar schemes have failed repeatedly in the past.

“The Australian Space Research Program of 2010 to 2014 had a $40 million budget and struggled to affect demonstrable outcomes.

“In anything other than ground-based processing of space data, Australia has yet to demonstrate itself as a competent collaborator and trusted partner. Overt, demonstrable professionalism and visible success is required for the shopfront of an emergent Australian space industry,” he said.

He argues for the creation of an Australian led and run space project – perhaps organised along the lines of the California’s X-prize foundation – that can provide a shopfront for the industry. Such a scheme might define a goal, invite competition and innovation in attempts to achieve it, with a serious funding incentive for the best solution.

Having said all this, the fact is that Space 2.0 really does mean something. It has never been cheaper to easier to form a space company and that is especially true of upstream companies, who build or fly launch vehicles and their associated paraphernalia, and satellites.

At FrontierSI, Graeme Kernich said “I think that there are now more favorable conditions and opportunities for the development of Australian space capability and data supply in areas that make sense to do so, whether that be privately operated with commercial use or servicing government requirements.”

It may well be that, if the ASA can get its international relationships right, significant amounts of work will be generated in Australia. Remote sensing satellites tailored to a land of drought and flooding rain may well eventuate. But as always, it will be because of the blood, sweat and tears of people with big dreams, and they don’t all live in Canberra.

Editor’s note: We provided the Australian Space Agency an opportunity to respond to detailed questions on the assumptions and calculations behind the figures used in the Advancing Space strategy, and on criteria for Australian intellectual property criteria for the new funding commitment, but they were unable to respond before deadline.

Jon Fairall is a journalist and author, and the founding editor of Position.

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