Canberra to host space agency from July 1

By on 15 May, 2018

Australia’s national space agency will commence operation on July 1, 2o18, with $15 million of the committed $41 million to go towards promoting strategic Australian involvement in international missions.

Ignition: location, start date announced

The Turnbull government has revealed further detail on its plans for a national space agency, giving the first indication of the shape that the institution will take.

After a pre-budget leak last week, the government has confirmed that former CSIRO boss Megan Clarke will lead the agency’s establishment and first year of its operation, which will commence from July 1, and be headquartered at the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science in Canberra, at least for the interim.

More significant is the release of the report on the review of Australia’s space industry capability, running since July 2017, and the government’s response to that report.

This document gives the most concrete indication yet of the government’s intentions going into the establishment of this historic agency — and an initial set of commitments and considerations that while aspirational, will be useful to track its progress against stated aims as the agency develops.

The review’s output was distilled into nine recommendations for government, mainly revolving around the establishment of a statutory national space agency, a national space industry strategy, and a charter to govern the agency.

Of these, the government has indicated that it either supports or notes all of these — but the devil really is in the detail. Let’s take a look.

Image provided by Nearmap.

A national space agency: mandate and responsibilities

The government has committed to establishing the agency from July 1, with $26 million in funding over four years for its ongoing operations.

The agency will act in accordance with its charter, which is due to be finalised within three months of the July 1 commencement date. This recommendation appears to have received particular attention, with the government response noting the review’s charter-specific appendix related to its role in guiding the operation of the agency — so much of the agency’s authority will likely hinge on this document’s content, due for release in September.

The government has stopped short of committing to a statutory basis for the agency, indicating it will consider this only after a review of its operations to occur within four years of kick-off.

The agency will be responsible for developing a space industry strategy that notes the review’s recommendations and government policy priorities.  The strategy will include an investment plan due within six months, which will contain a cost-benefit analysis of establishing a Space Industry Development Fund — another of the review’s recommendations.

The agency will be empowered to bring forward funding requests every three or four years.

Dr. Alex Grant and Dr. David Haley, CEO and CTO of S.A.-based startup Myriota, who recently closed $15 million in Series A funding, including from Boeing’s HorizonX ventures. Image provided by Boeing.

Partnerships to the fore

One of the weightier recommendations revolved around establishing partnerships to support Australia’s space industry to support technology transfer and development, expand upon agreements with international space agencies, establishing new ground infrastructure in Australia and access critical Earth Observation data.

The government appears to have heard this call loud and clear, with $15 million of the agency’s $41 million allotment to be dedicated to international partnerships on strategic projects over the first three years, with a focus on Australian business opportunities.

This allocation is significant, and seems to be aimed at providing a platform to Australia’s space-reliant businesses on the international stage as a core priority, while other operational details of the agency and its interaction with other departments are being hammered out.

Great news for those reliant on satellite-derived data and services, and those reliant on space-based infrastructure.

Wait and see

The government response was a little cooler on some other of the review’s recommendations.

The suggestion that the agency facilitate regulatory approval processes for small satellites was supported in principle, noting the recently-completed review of the Space Activities Act 1998, due to be introduced into parliament later this year — but no commitment to granting the agency this power.

The government also expresses in-principle support for the recommendation that the agency work with other key portfolios in a manner that emulates the Australian Defence Innovation Hub Investment program, to link space-related investment and procurement to those of core departments, noting that ‘procurement needs of individual portfolios will remain the priority.’

In its response, the government also name-drops the Business Research and Innovation Initiative — aimed at engaging government with innovative businesses — suggesting that the agency and space-related procurement needs may be funneled through that program.

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In-principle support is also expressed for engaging schools and the broader community on space promotion, training and education, with the agency tasked with this charge. The suggestion that the agency actively engage with industry was accepted — though it’s hard to imagine how it could credibly operate if it did not.

Finally, the government gave a shout-out to its’ two space-related CRCs, the Space Environment Research Centre and CRC for Spatial Information (CRCSI), pointing to its promised $260 million investment in positioning infrastructure and satellite data platform.

We will be monitoring the development of this historic agency closely — stay tuned!

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