Australia's satellite scarcity leaves us vulnerable

Australia's satellite scarcity leaves us vulnerable
07 August 2012

OPINION: Australia has long been something of a Blanche Dubois of satellite earth observation; keen to rub shoulders with the global space industry but ultimately dependent "on the kindness of strangers".

And like the protagonist in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, that dependency makes Australia vulnerable.

Australia's size and remote geography means we rely on access to satellite-sourced Earth observation (EO) data for many critical public and commercial purposes, including agricultural monitoring, assessing the availability of clean water supplies, and responding to natural disasters.

Earth observations from space will be worth $4 billion annually to the Australian economy by 2015. Satellite-based contributions to weather forecasting alone are valued at $400 million per year.

But despite our technical and economic capability, Australia does not have, and never has had, its own satellite providing useful EO data.

We use free or "public good" data, paid for by taxpayers of other countries - strangers. And while we've been accepting free data, countries like Algeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria and Singapore have initiated their own space programs, launching EO satellites for the use of their own people and others.

This generosity towards Australia can't last, particularly as global and localised economic volatility affects the economies of our traditional suppliers of EO data, putting planned satellite missions in jeopardy.

These satellites serve many important functions. Water managers, for example, rely on EO data to monitor and forecast catchment levels, to predict transpiration and run-off from forests and assess land use effects on water availability.

Geoscience Australia has identified two types of EO data we rely on as being at significant risk, with medium spatial resolution optical deemed "very high" risk, while synthetic aperture radar (SAR) is considered "high" risk.

We recently analysed all launches of satellites in these areas planned for before the end of 2015, in a submission to the Geoscience Australia working paper that will inform the national Space Policy expected later this year.

For the "very high" risk area, 10 satellites were proposed. Since 2011, seven have been delayed by more than a year and four by more than two years.

The average delay is 23 months. Of those delayed by less than a year, one has a lifespan of just one year, which is too short to be deemed useful, and another - the European Space Agency's Sentinel - is under threat of being scrapped due to severe budget cuts.

Only one useful satellite is on schedule. It is not unreasonable to say this category now has an "extreme" risk. This category is the workhorse of remote sensing, used for many applications including agriculture, forestry, fishing and mining.

Fourteen satellites were in the "high" risk SAR category. Since 2011, 11 have been delayed by more than a year, 10 by more than two years. Again, the average delay is 23 months.

Of the three less than a year late, two are ESA Sentinel satellites which, as outlined above, are at risk of being discontinued. These satellites can be used for flood monitoring, carbon accounting, and measuring soil moisture in the Murray-Darling Basin.

The financial crisis in Europe is behind these significant funding withdrawals and launch delays, and in such an environment, it is difficult to see new European missions being proposed. The unresolved crisis in Greece makes the outlook considerably gloomier.

The situation in the US is also poor. A recent report from the National Academies notes that "the number of in-orbit and planned NASA and NOAA Earth observing missions is projected to decline precipitously from 23 in 2012 to only 6 in 2020".

Unlike his predecessor, President Obama mentions EO in his space policy but the US budget situation is the real threat to improving this situation.

When the US reached its lending limits, budgetary wrangling led to serious cuts to EO programs. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was cut $140 million and was thus operating $900 million below its budget request. Launches of their satellites were delayed by 18 months.

Similarly, NASA is having trouble finding money in the current budgetary climate and is likely only to launch "one or two" earth science satellites per year, inevitably delaying many missions.

Australia's economy is the most buoyant in the developed world. We should be seriously considering launching our own EO satellite to insulate ourselves from the knock-on effect of economic uncertainty elsewhere.

Historically, Australia's approach to developing its own space capability has been risk-averse and indecisive. The Space Policy Unit has stated that:

... the Australian Government does not see an Australian satellite manufacturing or launch capability as an essential element of its approach to assured access to critical space-enabled services.

Geoscience Australia, last month, signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States that will ensure access to data from the upcoming Landsat 8 mission planned for 2013. This is the first sign that the government is acknowledging the risk to our wellbeing that lack of EO data presents, and a need to take responsibility for this shortcoming.

Australia has, and is developing, the capability to lead the development of a satellite mission that would help reduce these risks to our economy. At the very least, building a sensor for a satellite is not beyond our current means.

All we need is the will to act; and a failure to act decisively could have dire consequences.

Professor Andrew Dempster is director of the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at UNSW and the director of research for its Faculty of Engineering. 

This opinion piece first appeared in The Drum

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