Australian Space Policy Calls for Reducing International Dependence

by

PARIS — Australia’s new space policy is intended to account for the fact that the nation can no longer rely on the simple goodwill of its allies in the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan to supply space-related services, the Australian government announced April 9.

In a document outlining its space priorities, the government also says it endorses an international code of conduct on space activities, which European nations have been struggling to promote worldwide, and would support “practical, achievable and effectively verifiable space arms control measures that protect the space environment.”

With space services now accounting for 4 billion Australian dollars ($4.2 billion) a year in economic activity, Australia will need to diversify its sources of supply and accept that “[i]ncreasingly, international space capabilities are not provided for free.”

Australia is unlikely to be able to afford many of its own satellites, so it will need to look at putting mission-critical payloads on spacecraft owned and operated by others, according to the new Satellite Utilization Policy.

Australia’s military successfully applied this hosted-payload approach by purchasing a military UHF payload aboard a satellite owned by commercial satellite fleet operator Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington.

The new policy comes at a time when the satellite portion of Australia’s ambitious national broadband coverage project appears to have weathered a long political storm.

In an April 10 speech to the CommsDay Summit in Sydney, Malcolm Turnbull, the opposition Coalition’s shadow minister for communications and broadband, said a Coalition victory in September would not result in the cancellation of a satellite broadband procurement concluded by National Broadband Network Co. (NBN) on behalf of the current Labor Party government.

“The satellite program continues,” Turnbull said. “We’re not assuming that satellite availability will be any different [under a Coalition government]. In fact, we’re assuming that the satellites will arrive on time and in accordance with the contract. We wouldn’t have gone about it the way Labor has, but we’re not seeking to turn the clock back. The satellite availability is still there.”

Turnbull said the Coalition still will try to reduce the cost of the terrestrial components of the NBN network.

NBN’s satellite plans have been valued at 2 billion Australian dollars including the purchase of two large all-Ka-band spot beam satellites from Space Systems/Loral of California, a contract signed in February 2012 and valued at 620 million Australian dollars. The two satellites are scheduled for launch in 2015.

NBN is providing an interim satellite broadband option using Ku-band capacity from Thaicom of Thailand and Australia’s Optus satellite operator, with Gilat Satellite Networks of Israel providing the interim terminals.

Optus officials had raised the possibility that the interim solution might prove more permanent if the NBN program were scaled back following September’s elections. Turnbull’s statements suggest that is no longer a likely scenario.

The Satellite Utilization Policy notes that Australia in the past has been able to leverage its favorable location and vast land area to lure partners with ground telescopes and other space infrastructure to be place on Australian soil. In return, Australia won access to the satellites’ services.

The new policy document says these barter and goodwill gestures may no longer be enough, in part because Australia’s economy has grown dependent on satellite systems, and in part because the balance of power among spacefaring nations is shifting.

“Relying solely on countries who have supplied capabilities in the past means Australia will miss out on valuable opportunities,” the document says.

More specifically, the document says nearly 40 percent of the Earth observation data Australia now receives from foreign civilian satellites “has a high risk of not being provided in the coming years.” The document does not detail which Earth observation satellites are unlikely to be replaced on retirement, but says alternatives sources “may be available by actively engaging with non-traditional partners.”

Australia’s space research program, which typically seeks international partners to multiply Australia’s limited budget, has approved investments in the following programs:

  • Small Ka-band-frequency satellites to provide broadband connectivity to researchers on Antarctica, a project led by Aerospace Concepts Pty. Ltd. of Canberra.

 

  • An international project to develop a supersonic-combustion ramjet, or scramjet, capable of reaching speeds of Mach 8, a program led by the University of Queensland.

 

  • A remotely operated automatic ground-based laser tracking system for space debris, led by EOS Space Systems Pty Ltd. of Weston Creek.