AU-NASA ready for launch

The intention is to build a long-term domestic space industry and comes with an announcement made by minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, senator Arthur Sinodinos at last week’s 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, attended by space pioneer Buzz Aldrin. In so doing, the nation may be playing catch up to its counterparts in New Zealand – where it is a private company which is reaching for the skies (albeit on the back of government subsidies).

“Our National Space Agency will act as the doorway to our international space engagement and it will ensure that Australia has a strategic long-term plan that supports the development and application of space technologies and grows our domestic space industry,” said Sinodinos.

“It is terrific to see the enthusiasm this announcement has rallied across the spectrum of space science and politics. If ever there were an opportunity for legislators and policymakers, Federal and State, to put aside partisanship and focus on the greater good of the nation and planet, it is now.”

The opposition similarly announced its intention to create an agency, almost ensuring creation regardless of the outcome of the next election.

The agency will create a “strategic long-term plan that supports the development and application of space technologies”, grows the domestic space industry and coordinates international engagement.

A reference group (headed by former CSIRO Chief Dr Megan Clark) has been collecting feedback from industry, government and the public at large, consulting with more than 400 people across Australia and reviewing almost 200 written submissions. Feedback from that consultation process showed “overwhelmingly” the need for the establishment of the agency.

The announcement is a huge win for Australia’s underdeveloped space capabilities. Currently Australia contributes just one percent to the US$420 billion a year global space economy.

Australia does not currently launch its own satellites and instead relies on collaboration with other space players and foreign made and managed satellites (the country does have some degree of space capability however, most notably the 70m Deep Space Station 43, the largest radio telescope in the southern hemisphere).

Given the blank slate, it’s a lucrative opportunity, both in terms of a new space export economy, commercial satellite options and the opportunities to leverage data acquired through satellites.

And it’s overdue. Most developed nations, including New Zealand, have a space agency.

“The Australian government, unlike the New Zealand government, has failed to support space industry and space science in any coherent way, for quite some decades now,” said Australian space archaeologist Alice Gorman, the first woman ever elected to the Executive Council of the Space Industry Association of Australia.

She says Australians are, in this respect, “very envious” of what’s happening in New Zealand.

New Zealand also boasts Rocket Labs, Peter Beck’s ambitious commercial space shipping project focused on the small satellite market .

Rocket Lab engineers launched a 3D printed, carbon fibre rocket from the Mahia Peninsula in May, becoming the 11th country in the world with ‘space cargo’ capabilities.

“We’re one of a few companies to ever develop a rocket from scratch and we did it in under four years,” said Beck of the successful launch.

“We’ve developed everything in house, built the world’s first private orbital launch range, and we’ve done it with a small team.”

“It was a great flight….We didn’t quite reach orbit and we’ll be investigating why, however reaching space in our first test puts us in an incredibly strong position to accelerate the commercial phase of our programme, deliver our customers to orbit and make space open for business,” Beck added.

Last week Rocket Labs announced that it will fly payloads for satellites on its next test flight (date still to be confirmed).

While Rocket Lab draws some funding from the government (NZ$25m over five years), its main source financing is via private investment. The group closed its Series D financing round in March, securing US$75m. The closure of the round brought the total funding Rocket Lab has received to US$148 million, and sees the company’s value now top US$1 billion.

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