Australia sets up space agency with eye on satellite tech

(From left) US National Aeronautics and Space Administration acting administrator Robert Lightfoot, Russian Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities head Igor Komarov, European Space Agency director-general Jan Woerner, China National Space A
(From left) US National Aeronautics and Space Administration acting administrator Robert Lightfoot, Russian Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities head Igor Komarov, European Space Agency director-general Jan Woerner, China National Space Administration secretary-general Tian Yulong and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency president Naoki Okumura at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide last month. Australia announced the creation of a space agency last week, after decades of calls to boost its role in the space sector.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Move may spur tech development and data analyses for telecoms, defence, environment

Australia is setting up its first space agency in a much-anticipated move to ensure that the nation is not left behind in the new global space race.

The agency is expected to create 10,000 jobs over the next five years - especially for engineers and technicians - as it oversees Australia's involvement in a sector worth more than A$420 billion (S$447 billion).

Experts said the agency will be able to quickly pay for itself. Australia now spends A$5.3 billion a year for satellite information from overseas firms.

Dr Alan Duffy, a space industry expert, said the agency could encourage Australia's involvement in the manufacture of satellites as well as the capture and use of satellite data.

There are growing uses for this data in Australia, including helping farmers irrigate crops, produce heat maps for controlling bush fires, track weather patterns and marine life in the Great Barrier Reef, as well as explore the country's vast tracts of land to boost resource extraction, he said.

Dr Duffy, an associate professor of astrophysics at Swinburne University of Technology, told The Straits Times: "This is not so much about sending people into space as about creating jobs for people on Earth."

In 1967, Australia became only the third country after the United States and the then Soviet Union to launch its own locally built satellite. But it has since fallen behind, and typically relies on other nations to help launch and design satellites.

Aside from Iceland, Australia is now the only member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development - the Paris-based club of rich nations - without a space agency.

BOOST FOR COUNTRY

Australia has this huge land mass. We, more than almost any country on planet Earth, can benefit from using satellite technologies to manage our country.

PROFESSOR BRIAN SCHMIDT, a Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist and vice-chancellor at ANU, on why the new space agency will be good for Australia.

The Australian government announced the creation of the agency last week, after decades of calls for Australia to boost its role in the space sector. A panel of experts appointed to consider the charter for the agency is due to report back by the end of March next year.

Experts welcomed the announcement, noting that the emphasis is likely to be on developing satellite technology for use in innovation, telecommunications, defence and the environment, rather than on space exploration.

Dr Michael Brown, an astronomer at Monash University, said: "I'm optimistic that Australia can develop its own satellites and be partners in multinational space projects."

International space agencies, too, welcomed the announcement, saying it could boost cooperation.

The European Union's special envoy for space, Mr Francois Rivasseau, said other nations would benefit from Australia becoming more active in the space sector. He added that the EU could cooperate with Australia on research, data sharing and analysis, and even developing space exploration projects.

Australia's space sector currently involves a host of firms and agencies that employ up to 11,500 people. The sector has an annual revenue of more than A$3 billion.

But the industry lacks direction and coordination, and is worth just 0.8 per cent of the global sector.

The space race now is being fuelled by the pursuit of commercial uses rather than by the traditional focus on defence and security.

Scientists said the agency could help Australia develop facilities for preventing water theft in its food bowls, and extending broadband technology to remote areas.

"Australia has this huge land mass," Professor Brian Schmidt, a Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist and vice-chancellor at the Australian National University (ANU), told ABC News.

"We, more than almost any country on planet Earth, can benefit from using satellite technologies to manage our country," he said.

Dr Duffy said Australia's share of the global sector should be "double or triple" its current levels.

"We could be creating so much more value in space," he said.

"This will mean we can finally explore and commercialise space together as a nation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2017, with the headline 'Australia sets up space agency with eye on satellite tech'. Print Edition | Subscribe