8 mins read 31 Mar 2022

National Space Mission Announced in latest budget

A large new investment, allocated as part of the latest federal budget, contains details of plans to design, build and operate four satellites for Earth Observation. The $1.16 billion project will be led by the Australian Space Agency.

The National Space Mission for Earth Observation, will design, build and operate four new satellites for Earth Observation (EO). Credit: CSIRO.

As part of this week's federal budget, a new space program was announced that will be led by the Australian Space Agency (ASA). The project, the National Space Mission for Earth Observation, will design, build and operate four new satellites for Earth Observation (EO).  

According to the release on Tuesday, the ASA led National Space Mission will be in partnership with Geoscience Australia, CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and Defence. The program will have an initial investment period of around 15 years with Minister for Science and Technology Melissa Price saying this was the most significant investment ever made in Australia’s civil space sector.

“The information we get from Earth observation satellites is central to our everyday life – from forecasting the weather and responding to natural disasters through to managing the environment and supporting our farmers,” Minister Price said.

Dr Bianca Capra, a Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering at the University of New South Wales Canberra and High-Speed Flight Specialist echoes Minister Price, saying “We rely on space-based systems daily, we take these systems for granted in our day-to-day lives, and their absence would be critically felt. We need to strengthen our support of Australia’s sovereign capability in space and continue to grow this vital sector that many parts of our economy are highly dependent on.”

The Australian Space Industry has been calling for a major government-led project to support the growing space sector.   

Deputy Director (Mission Specialists) at the Australian National University Institute for Space, Dr Cassandra Steer said that “Nothing beats having our own cutting edge EO satellite systems, which can be used for mapping, tracking climate change, search and rescue, national security and many more applications. Just the mapping applications are vast: think about identification of cultural heritage sites, of the environmental impact as well as benefits of logging and mining sites, of climate and environmental changes over time.”

The Australian Space Ecosystem

Geoscience Australia’s Alice Springs ViaSat antenna has been painted with a Lakota Sioux artwork recognising Sioux Nation peoples as custodians of the land where the United States Geological Survey (USGS) satellite operators are based, with whom Geoscience Australia work closely. Credit: Geoscience Australia.

There is significant excitement within the industry with the Head of the Australian Space Agency, Enrico Palermo tweeting “This is a true milestone moment for the Australian space industry. It’s the most important investment in our nation’s proud space history and will take our sector to the next level – all while delivering outcomes that benefit all Australians.”

It is understood that GeoScience Australia will be responsible for operating the new fleet of satellites once they are deployed. Geoscience Australia is the federal agency responsible for advising on the geology and geography of Australia. They will work with CSIRO who will develop data strategy for the Earth Observation satellites as well as building ground stations for their management.

“Developing and launching these first four Australian satellites will create the foundation of industry know-how for more complex space missions next decade. That means more expertise and more jobs right here in Australia in this critical industry,” added Minister Price.  

Industry leaders agree, with Martin Rowse, the key account manager for space at Airbus in Australia saying “The National Space Program is a huge step forward for Australia, and will become a major driver of Sovereign capability.”  

Earth Observation satellite images can be used for a wide range or purposes, this image shows vegetation coverage across the greater Brisbane area. These types of images can be used to track deforestation, bushfire damage and much more. Credit: Geoscience Australia.

“The focus on Earth Observation will not only enable Australian domestic companies to develop capability for the spacecraft, including novel sensing. It will enable a whole new industry for data analytics and use of Space data to provide value across the whole of government, alongside a new generation of Australians working in the Space industry,” added Rowse.  

Rocketry enthusiast and founder of It's Rocket Science Adventures, Cran Middlecoat is also excited about what this announcement means for the sector, saying “there has never been a better time in the history of our nation, to strive for a career in space. For decades, if an Australian wanted to pursue a career in the space sector, they had to take their talents overseas. With the latest government budget announcement, there are now real possibilities for young Australians to have a career contributing to a sovereign space capability. It’s an exciting time to be alive.“

Dr Capra is keen to see what the details will be saying, “as an Aerospace Engineer who has long hoped for a strong sovereign Australian Space Sector this is an exciting investment. The funding announced will help further advance the innovative and world-leading work being done here in Australia from indigenous launch capabilities to satellite development, launch and operation. I am particularly excited to see the investment supports rocket launch capability as well as satellite development, as combined, these two key areas will help secure our sovereign access and capability in space.”  

Bringing together industry

There are many kinds of Earth Observation (EO) Satellites, Professor Anna Moore believes that having a sovereign EO capability is important.  

Australia is certainly aiming to stamp itself on the space map, after the announcement of the new defence space command and the significant defence projects of JP9102 (Satellite Communications) and JP9360 (Space Domain Awareness). The space community, in general, has also welcomed this announcement.

Professor Melissa de Zwart, Deputy Chair, Space Industry Association of Australia supported the announcement saying, “this is a significant project reflecting Australia’s commitment to the space industry and building upon our heritage in space-related observation, noting that we are now moving to Earth observation from space, rather than space from Earth. This national mission will generate a sense of engagement which will inspire further Australian space capability and further integrate the Defence and the civilian space sector.”  

Along with the National Space Mission announcement, there were also details of continuing support for the Women in STEM Ambassador initiative and the Future You national digital awareness-raising initiative as well as an extension to the Superstars of STEM Program, which raises the profile of Australian women in STEM and inspires the next generation.

“I hope this will help others around the world see Australia as a serious entity in space-based technologies. I also find it great that there is funding for not only getting women in STEM more involved but also training and University scholarships to allow support. Although this helps, I am hoping that the emphasis on the Women in STEM office and SuperStars of STEM will also give that next generation the much needed positive support for those that identify as girls/women that can often be lacking in the field, ‘ said Dr Chenoa Tremblay, Astronomer, former CSIRO postdoctoral fellowship recipient and current postdoctoral researcher at the SETI Institute in California.

Tracking bushfires is one of the most significant uses of EO satellites. Having access to sovereign EO capabilities will be an important asset in not only tracking them but also understanding how they impact the environment. Credit: NASA.

“What I am surprised to not see mentioned outright is support or mentorship for Aboriginal people that may want to get involved in space-based fields of study or the care for the land in which these launch sites are to be built upon. It is a great start and I look forward to seeing where this all goes,” added Dr Tremblay. 

Jobs will be a big part of this announcement with the government suggesting that the project will create more than 500 jobs over the first four years of the build phase, with an anticipated supplier network of more than 100 companies from across Australia. 

“Most people think about launch capabilities when they think about the space sector, but that is only a fraction of the global space industry, and of Australia’s potential in the space sector. There are scientific and governance reasons, as well as commercial and security ones, that make Earth observation a very worthy beneficiary of this investment. I’m excited to see where it goes, and to delve into the governance and regulatory aspects of it as a space lawyer,” added Dr Steer.

Professor Anna Moore, Director, ANU Institute for Space (InSpace)  said “From bushfire mitigation to our nation’s water movement and quality, this mission series reflects our country’s needs now and into the future, without redundancy on the world stage.”  

“Australia has a long history in training and producing technically brilliant aerospace scientists and engineers and this investment will ensure that these highly trained individuals will remain in Australia and continue to grow this sector. Space is always exciting, and this announcement ensures that it will remain exciting for future generations,” concluded Dr Capra