The ANU has moved to ensure it remains well-placed to engage with a growing Australian space sector, after the federal government announced the formation of an Australian space agency.
The announcement of the new agency was made at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, an annual gathering of over 4,000 industry professionals from around the world.
Details are yet to be finalised, but will be announced in 2018, after the findings of the government- commissioned Review of Australia’s Space Industry Capability, chaired by former CSIRO chief Dr Megan Clark, are released.
However, the minister for education and training, Senator Simon Birmingham, said that one point is already overwhelmingly clear. ‘The case for establishing an Australian space agency is compelling.’
Despite being the third country to launch a satellite into orbit, after the United States and Soviet Union, Australia is now one of the only developed countries not to have a domestic space agency.
In a discussion paper released earlier this month, the expert reference group for the review acknowledged that the development of small satellites, increased access to and value of information in the digital age, and new entrants to the sector, were the key drivers of change in the international space sector.
The international industry is worth an estimated $420 billion, and the government hopes to cash in on the fast-growing sector, focusing on the thousands of new jobs that could be created.
‘The global space industry is growing rapidly and it is crucial that Australia is part of this growth,’ the employment minister, Michaelia Cash, said.
How much the government is willing to invest, and where it will be invested, remains to be seen. However, the industry is expected to ‘pay for itself ’, through the growth predicted as a result of the new agency.
The ACT has historically been a strong centre of the Australian space sector. The former Honeysuckle Creek observatory south of the city was the first to receive footage of the 1969 moon landing, which it relayed to the United States.
NASA’s Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla is one of three stations worldwide capable of tracking NASA’s deep space missions. It currently supports over 30 missions and received the last data sent from the Cassini space probe before it’s destruction.
The ANU is particularly well placed to engage with and benefit from a growing Australian space sector, already contributing
to international and domestic astronomical efforts through the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA), and facilities at Mt Stromlo and Siding Spring.
‘A national space agency for Australia should allow us to coordinate our efforts – between Australian industry, academia and defence – to do bigger and bolder things than we have done before,’ said the ANU’s vice-chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt.
The ANU is home to the Advanced Instrumental Technology Centre (AITC) at Mount Stromlo, Australia’s most sophisticated facility for building and testing satellites and developing astronomical instrumentation.
It features equipment that simulates the extreme conditions satellites and space instruments will experience during launch, and once in orbit, to ensure that they are up to the task.
The university is also part of the Giant Magellan Telescope project, the international search for ‘Planet 9’, and other international collaborations, as well as operating the Skymapper telescope, at Siding Spring, which is in the process of surveying the entire southern sky.
The ANU hosts the Cooperative Research Centre, using laser technology to track and destroy space debris, which poses a real risk to existing spacecraft and satellites.
Schmidt conducted his Nobel Prize- winning research into the expansion of the universe from the RSAA. Currently, an ongoing project into plasma propulsion for spacecraft is also being led out of the RSAA.
‘ANU is a national resource with leading facilities which drive Australia’s research, as well as space industry and technology,’ Schmidt said.
The ANU shares its astronomical expertise with school students too, hosting the McNamara-Saunders Astronomical Teaching Telescope at its Mount Stromlo campus.
In the days since the government’s announcement, the ANU has moved to cement its position at the centre of Australia’s space sector, announcing three major new initiatives.
The ANU will be leading a government-contracted project to develop new sensors for low- altitude satellites and drones, in collaboration with the Defence Materials Technology Centre, the University of New South Wales in Canberra, and CSIRO.
The leader of the project, Associate Professor Rob Sharp, explained, ‘The mission uses simultaneous observations of light to build a 3D model of the sea. The model is the key to peeling back the layers of the ocean and seeing beneath the surface.’
The project will initially focus on creating models to determine underwater visibility, the structure of the seafloor and local flora, and to examine coral coverage and its health, but eventually may also be used to locate buried minerals, and be applied across civil and defence sectors.
‘This project will produce a single sensor design that can be tuned to addressing remote sensing problems as diverse as detecting submerged objects, to assessing coral reef health in one single package,’ said Professor Anna Moore, director of the AITC.
The University also signed a memorandum of understanding with UNSW Canberra at the International Astronautical Congress, committing to collaborate on satellite and space instrument development and testing.
The ANU has already worked with UNSW in the development of CubeSats, the kind of miniaturised satellite that the review’s Expert Reference Group has recognised are driving change in the international space industry.
But now, with the ANU providing design knowledge and testing facilities, and UNSW providing technical engineering expertise, ‘we have a professional end-to- end capability to conceive, design, build and test complete satellites so that they are ready for launch,’ said Professor Schmidt.
Moore said that the collaboration was a strategic choice that would help to grow the Australian domestic space industry.
‘As a part of our mission as a national university, the AITC establishes these strategic partnerships to focus the facilities and talent Australia needs to build its own domestic space industry,’ she said.
The ANU has also been reaching out internationally, signing a memorandum of understanding with the German space agency Deutsches Zentrum für Luft Raumfahrt (DLR) on Friday.
‘The collaboration positions the University as a leading institution at the forefront of Australia’s development of space technology and research,’ Schmidt said.
The university and DLR expect to work together on projects that combine DLR’s expertise in developing communication satellites, planetary exploration and human spaceflight programs, with the ANU’s experience in laser physics, optical instrumentation and quantum technologies.
Considering the its current position, as well as these developments, the ANU is optimistic about its future role in the space sector.
‘We are excited about what we can do together and look forward to collaborating with industry and other research institutes across Australia, and around the world, to drive innovation and establish a leadership position for Australia in space,’ Moore said.
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