« Go back

Australia’s Space Journey

Since the late 1940s, Australia’s involvement in global space activities has been bifurcated between national security and civil and commercial elements. Australia’s future role in space security will be highlighted in 2017, when Adelaide hosts the International Astronautical Congress, the world’s largest space conference.

There are four main drivers that explain Australia’s approach to space, these being: strategic geography, alliance relationships, being a good international citizen and cost and risk.

Strategic geography

Dr Neal Newman, a former NASA representative to Australia, used to tell audiences that the principal value of Australia to NASA is that it is ‘there, bare and fair’. What did he mean?

There: Australia is roughly equidistant in longitude from North America and Europe. This means, as the Earth turns, that satellites and deep space probes are almost always in view of a control station in one of these locations.

Bare: Australia’s population is small and concentrated in a few large cities. The interior of the continent is relatively free from radio interference, meaning that weak signals from space have a better chance of being detected here that in more densely populated parts of the world.

Fair: Australia’s political system, relative to many other nations, is open and stable. Democratic values and the rule of law prevail.

Alliance relationships

From the late 1940s until the early 1970s, the Woomera rocket range was one of the most active missile development centres in the world. In assisting the United Kingdom to develop an independent nuclear weapons capability, Australia sought to gain international influence that might otherwise not have been possible.

The missile development programs at Woomera were closed down in the early 1970s. However, as the British moved out the Unites States moved in and gained Australian Government support to establish satellite ground stations at Pine Gap near Alice Springs and at Nurrungar near Woomera. Both facilities played important roles in the Cold War and Pine Gap continues to play an important strategic role. It is a vital element in Australia’s alliance relationship with the United States.

Australia as a good international citizen

Australia was one of the first nations to sign the basic governing law of space: the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. It is one of very few states that have signed all five treaties that provide the framework governing human activity in space. An Australian also chaired the technical sub-committee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) for thirty years from its inception.

More recently, Australia has been an active middle power participant in international discussions that are designed to establish a code of conduct to which spacefaring nations will voluntary adhere in their own interests as well as the broader interests of the international community. Some parts of outer space, especially Low Earth Orbits (LEO) out to 1200 or so kilometres, are becoming so cluttered that some rules of the road are urgently needed.

Cost and risk

Historically, Australian governments have accepted as an article of faith that space activities are costly and risky. Successive governments have used alliance relationships, international data-sharing agreements and clever contracting models to reduce cost and risk wherever possible while still gaining access to data and services . This approach is not without its critics. A small but persistent group of people, comprising mainly industry representatives and researchers, believe that Australia can and should be doing more in the civil and commercial space sector than is presently the case.

A note on Woomera

There is a persistent myth that Woomera is well-located for the launch of satellites.  This is not the case. It is located too far south to be really competitive in the market for launching satellites into equatorial orbits and launch paths to the north-east or south-east pass over towns and cities that could be impacted in the event of a launch mishap. Only two satellites have ever been launched from Woomera. The first, called WRESAT (Weapons Research Establishment Satellite) was launched in November 1967. The second was a British satellite called Prospero. Woomera is excellent for testing missiles and other military equipment and is well-suited to recovery of objects returning to Earth from space, such as the Japanese Hyabusa capsule that landed at Woomera in 2010 having collected samples from a comet’s tail.

Current developments

Towards the end of 2015, the Commonwealth Department of Innovation and Industry announced a review of the Space Activities Act 1998. The review fits into the government’s long-term objective of reducing the red tape that can stifle invention, innovation and business success. The more immediate aim is to determine ways to relax the liability requirements (which  are presently onerous) in the event that a satellite or other space object of known provenance, such as a rocket casing, causes damage either in space or on the ground.

At present at least five cubesats are being built in Australia with plans for launch in the next two to three years. Cubesats are a type of miniaturised satellite designed for space research and measure 10cm x 10cm x 10cm. However, the modules can be joined together to make larger satellites comprising, for example, two or six of the standard dimension cubes. Several cubesats are being built in Australian universities and will carry small experiments and concept demonstrators. At present, insurance costs are crippling which is one reason why the review of the Space Activities Act is so important.

Australia is continuing its support to space exploration. One of three of NASA’s most important satellite communications stations is located at Tidbinbilla near Canberra. The European Space Agency (ESA) also operates ground stations in Western Australia. Both NASA and ESA are investing substantially to upgrade their Australian facilities.

In the past decade successive Australian governments have begun to pay more systematic attention to civil and commercial space activities and to Australia’s dependence on the services and data provided by satellites. Furthermore, there is evidence that a space and spatial services sector is starting to develop within the national economy. Although this sector may be quite small, it can be expected to exert disproportionate influence due to the dependence of nearly all elements of the economy on assured and secure access to space-based services.

Brett Biddington AM, is the founder and principal of a Canberra-based consulting company. He has adjunct professorial appointments at RMIT University and Edith Cowan University. This article can be republished under a Creative Commons License. 

Published January 27, 2016