Opinion: Our future in space

The final space shuttle mission could mark the start of a new era of opportunity in space for Australia, says UNSW's Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research.

By Dr Steven Tsitas and Professor Andrew Dempster of
the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW.

NASA's final space shuttle mission marks the end of a remarkable era of big-dollar investment in space research. It does not, however, mark the end of space research itself.

Rather it heralds what will be a time of perhaps the most rapid space vehicle development in history, and Australia can play a profitable role in this period, if we want to.

There is a very real opportunity for Australia to be a part of the burgeoning global space industry. Spacecraft are worth more than their weight in gold, selling for over $140,000 per kilogram. By contrast, Australia's motor vehicle industry (the second-highest subsidised in the OECD on a per capita basis) produces cars worth their weight in meat (not exported live). The worldwide space industry has revenues of over $275 billion a year, with a growth rate of 9 per cent a year. This market doubles in size every eight years and, at current growth rates, will exceed the size of the worldwide aviation industry in 25 years. With the right design and business model, Australian-designed satellites can be export earners in a high value add/high growth market. Those satellites can also provide vital Earth observation capabilities that we would otherwise have to fulfill by buying access to other countries' spacecraft.

If we are to have a serious space capability, one of the options available to the Federal Government's Space Policy Unit (SPU) is to establish a space agency: Australia is, somewhat notoriously, the only OECD country not to have one. But when people think of space agencies, they think of NASA and the European Space Agency - large, bureaucratic organisations funding large, expensive missions. And with Canberra's current emphasis on getting the budget into surplus, such an institution seems unlikely to eventuate.

Recently, the SPU announced the final round of its $40 million Australian Space Research Program (ASRP), funding 10 "research" and four "education" projects into the middle of 2013. This represents the most significant government investment in the space industry in recent memory and will hopefully deliver several potential space missions. Consistent with the drive to surplus, however, no new money was announced for space in the 2011 budget, meaning it will be another year before we have an idea about commitments beyond the ASRP.

Australia can, however, use its lack of established space capability to its advantage. Some countries with limited traditional, cabled telephone infrastructure, installed mobile phone and high-speed internet infrastructure ahead of the United States; similarly, Australia, without significant investments in established space engineering infrastructure to amortise, can leap ahead in the specialised area of satellite technology.

A key element to this approach is to embrace cutting-edge technology and innovative design, and accept the risk this entails. When it comes to change, size matters. The largest satellites are the size of a double-decker bus and can cost billions of dollars. Generally the smallest commercial satellites are over 50kg, and typically over 100kg.

Very small spacecraft, however, those in the 5kg to 50kg range, have a cost low enough that failures are not financially crippling. Advanced technologies can be trialed and operational experience accrued. In turn, advanced technologies that we are developing right now in Australia - amplifier-on-a-chip microchips and solar cells that can be rolled up - will endow the small spacecraft with the capabilities of much larger spacecraft.

At the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) at UNSW we are working on designs for very small satellites that can do the job of much larger ones. Our goal is an Australian-designed-and-led international constellation of radar spacecraft, able to image most of the planet's land mass every hour, enabling, for example, hourly maps of floods, day or night, in any weather. Such a constellation would let us see radar images of any point on Earth in one hour, instead of the current time of one day.

An initial investment by the Government to develop the first spacecraft could create ongoing export revenue as the constellation size is built up through sales of Australian-designed spacecraft (built by overseas contract manufacturers if necessary) to other countries. A large number of satellites (perhaps as many as 30) are needed for such a constellation, which is prohibitive for expensive, big satellites. For a viable constellation, smaller satellites much cheaper than $50 million (the current cheapest radar satellite design) are required. They can also expand the worldwide market for radar satellites, and provide a space capability complementary to other countries.

We hope the government will embrace a pragmatic approach, based on what space promises for Australia in export earnings and opportunities for international leadership. Building operational experience with advanced technology and innovative spacecraft design will help us leapfrog the rest of the world. Such an approach is affordable if the spacecraft are small, since the financial risk is limited.

This article was first published on the ABC opinion website, The Drum.