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Lift off: advancing Australia’s space industry
Andrew Balis
Andrew Balis

Until recently, space has been the domain of governments. Due to the high costs and significant risks associated with space, governments have historically taken the lead on investment in space related research, development and operation. If we look back 10 years, the idea of commercial space was merely a proposition. Now, private entities have shown that they are more than capable of innovating and undertaking space related research, development and operation. At a global level, private entities are working successfully with space agencies.

Growth in the last 10 years

Looking back to 2009 and 2010, Australia’s space economy reached revenues of $1.4 billion. More recently in 2018 and 2019, Australia’s space economy grew steadily to reach revenues of more than $4.6 billion, around 0.25% of GDP. The number of startups increased significantly in that timeframe as well. However, if we compare our space economy to other nations: the UK space economy is 0.7% of their GDP and in the USA, their space economy is about 1% of GDP.1 In 2019, Australia ranked 18th among the G20 countries for government investment in space as a percentage of GDP.2 There was a general consensus that Australian government investment should be increased. More recent data indicates that the Australian space sector generated about $5.7 billion in 2020 with 829 businesses supporting 15,234 jobs.3

Recognising the rapid growth of the global space industry and its economic potential for Australia, the Australian Government established the Australian Space Agency (the Agency) in July 2018 to support the sector and drive further growth. In particular, the Agency was established to “transform and grow a globally respected Australian space industry that lifts the broader economy, inspires and improves the lives of Australians – underpinned by strong international and national engagement.”4

Agency goals

The Agency set goals to triple the size of the Australian space sector to AU$12 billion and create up to 20,000 new direct and indirect space jobs by 2030.5 Other goals set by the Agency are to achieve growth in the space sector at an annual rate of 8.5% and for inbound investment to reach AU$1 billion by 2025. Whilst the goal of 8.5% yearly growth may seem significant, according to a 2020 survey by the Nous group, space firm revenue in Australia grew 17% a year in 2018 and 2019, which was 3.5 times faster than the growth of the overall economy. It is not yet clear whether the pandemic and associated lockdowns has significantly impacted the growth of Australia’s space economy. So far, it seems that there has been little impact as revenues have remained stable or increased. With supply chains in a recovery phase, Australia’s space economy seems to be on track to meet the Agency’s goals by 2030. 

According to the Advancing Australian Civil Space Strategy document6, the goals of 2018-2019 were to set conditions for growth. The goals of 2019-2021 were to engage with opportunity and build on setting conditions for growth. The goals of 2021-2028 are about delivering success, focussing on priorities across each strategic pillar set by the Agency.

The Agency is responsible for government coordination of civil space matters. Examples of these responsibilities include but are not limited to: advising government on investment in areas the Agency believes are important to Australian people; approving launches and coordinating events; funding grants to drive growth in the industry; signing international agreements such as the Space Bridge Agreement with the UK or the Artemis Accords with the USA; regulating local space activity such as launches; and inspiring the Australian community and the next generation of space entrepreneurs.

Why invest in space?

So, why would we want to increase our investment in the space industry when there are so many problems here on Earth? Well, investment in the space industry creates jobs here on Earth. Investment in the space industry also promotes innovation which may lead to some of the problems here on Earth being solved, and vice versa!

In the words of one of our clients, Taofiq Huq, co-founder and CEO of Spiral Blue,

“The reason we work with space is to benefit people on Earth.”

Spiral Blue is working on a space edge computer, which needs to be resistant to the high levels of radiation in space. The expected applications and benefits of the technology is widespread across various industries, including defence, maritime, agriculture, city planning and forestry.

With a view to the agricultural industry specifically, the technology will help to monitor crop health and yields, predict irrigation usage, manage and track agricultural assets and optimise farms with precise data.

Space innovation is also yielding results in healthtech. One problem of living in space is dealing with the exposure to massive amounts of radiation, from which on Earth we are protected by the Earth’s atmosphere (to put it simply). Exposure to such large amounts of radiation over time essentially tears our cells apart. So, one way to overcome this problem is to preemptively activate our DNA repair genes (i.e., reactivating a gene that was dormant). A similar idea to this is being used to treat sickle cell-beta thalassemia – an inherited blood disorder.

Another reason to invest in the space industry is that it creates inspiring stories for future generations and it will drive the exploration of space and expand human knowledge.

Agency progress

Since the Agency’s inception, and the substantial goals the Agency has set, what has the Agency done so far?

In 2018, the Agency was focused on setting up the agency, relationship building, creating a strategy and developing ideas.

In 2019, the Agency was focused on publishing their space strategy. The Agency also focused on organising investments. These investments include:

  • A Space Infrastructure Fund which will invest $19.5 Billion over 4 years and is aimed at developing new technologies.
  • International Space Investment which will invest $15 Billion over 3 years and is aimed at supporting supply chains.
  • A Moon to Mars Partnership with NASA. $150 million over 5 years, to help work with NASA.

The Agency also established baseline measurements for the Australian space sector. Examples of such baseline measurements include the number of people working and the amount of money made by businesses in the industry.

In 2020, the Agency published their Moon to Mars consultation paper. The initiative was split into three programs and phased as follows7:

  1. Supply chain program.
  2. Demonstrator program.
  3. Trailblazer program.

The $150 million Moon to Mars funding to be spent over 5 years is split evenly between the above three programs and it is thought that the first two programs will set up the trailblazer program for success. The Agency believes it is important that the programs focus on activities and projects that have the highest chance of success in the market and may contribute to benefits here on Earth.

Speaking of benefits here on Earth and solving problems, the Australian Space Agency led an Earth observation taskforce8 to consider further action on bushfire risk management. This was in response to the devastating bushfires in the summer of 2019-2020. Partners in the Bushfire Earth Observation Taskforce include: CSIRO; Geoscience Australia; and Australian Bureau of Meteorology. 

Satellite based Earth observation (‘satellite imagery’) systems are used to support a range of emergency management activities including fire, flood, and severe weather. The Taskforce identified four pathways to provide regular, assured satellite imagery and its derived products and services:

  • Partnerships: Ensuring access to satellite Earth observation data by building on existing partnerships with international satellite operators and reviewing Australia’s use of the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters;
  • Data Systems: Guaranteeing satellite data is reliably and consistently provided to users by streamlining data systems;
  • Tools: Helping the private sector and community to easily access and tailor products and services; and
  • New satellite imagery: Exploring opportunities to leverage and develop Australia’s space industry to provide new satellite imagery capabilities, including collaboration on future platforms and the role of private industry, to secure access to key data, address data gaps (revisit and resolution) and support the global observing system.

The Taskforce also observed that while NovaSAR-1 (a UK satellite) can see through smoke and cloud, by day and night, it cannot provide regular operational support to bushfires. However, it would be useful for Australian research agencies and fire services to develop the use of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) for this purpose.

In 2021, the Australian Space Agency signed a formal space bridge agreement with the UK called the “Space Bridge Framework Arrangement”9. Essentially, the Arrangement stipulates that Australia and the UK will do what they can to facilitate better relationships between Australian and UK companies.

Space startups

With all of these agreements, extra funding by the Australian government and research, many Australian space startups have emerged in recent years. It will be interesting to see how the Australia space industry expands over the coming years with increased government funding, international collaborations and the startups that emerge.

Speaking of Australian space startups, Cicada Innovations launched the National Space Industry Hub in February this year to foster the growth of Australian space businesses and encourage collaboration amongst those businesses. In the words of Cicada Innovations CEO, Sally-Ann Williams, “it will take an ecosystem to build Australia’s space industry”.

The Wolfpack Space Hub is another incubator for space startups which provides deep-tech technical support for its members. The members of the Wolfpack include: Spiral Blue, Sperospace, Dandelions and Metakosmos, just to name a few. These Aussie space startups are working on some interesting projects such as enabling artificial intelligence in space, modular robotic arms for small satellites, air deployed IOT solutions and space suits.

Coming from an aerospace engineering background myself, it is so pleasing to see the collaboration amongst Aussie space startups as well as the incubators providing support and facilitating the collaboration. The National Space Industry Hub and the Wolfpack provide fantastic opportunities for space startups to make their mark on the world.

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About the author
Andrew Balis
Associate, Patent & Trade Mark Attorney
Andrew Balis is a Sydney patent and trade mark attorney specialising in mechanical and aerospace technology.

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