NASA Australia signing ceremony
NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard (left) and Megan Clark, head of the Australian Space Agency, sign the agreement Sept. 21 while Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (standing, left) and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison look on. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

WAILEA, Hawaii — NASA signed an agreement with its Australian counterpart Sept. 21 to cooperate on NASA’s Artemis program as Australia seeks to further boost its space industry.

In a ceremony at NASA Headquarters, the two space agencies signed a “joint statement of intent” regarding cooperation on NASA’s plans to return humans to the moon. The event was attended by leadership of the two agencies as well as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

What roles Australia will plan in the Artemis program or other exploration initiatives remain to be determined. NASA, in a statement about the agreement, envisioned Australia contributing “in areas of mutual interest such as robotics, automation, and remote asset management,” building on its capabilities in mining.

“It will give Australian businesses a chance to compete for a place in growing international space supply chains,” Morrison said in remarks at the signing ceremony. “The Australian Space Agency will work with NASA on how it can support a significant part of its mission.” That work, he added, could include lunar surface systems or capabilities for the lunar Gateway.

Morrison also used the speech to announce the Australian government will spend $150 million Australian ($102 million) over the next five years in support of “the mission and related activities,” he said, hinting that funding could grow. “I expect that’s just where we’re going to begin.”

Exactly how that money will be spent is uncertain. A statement from the Australian government said the additional funding would go “into our local businesses and new technologies that will support NASA on its inspirational campaign to return to the Moon and travel to Mars.”

The Australian Space Agency, in its own statement, said the investment would, in part, support pilot projects and demonstrations of “investment-ready” Australian technologies that could support space activities, which in turn could support cooperation with NASA and other space agencies and aid Australian space companies win business.

The agreement and funding announcements are the latest signs of growing support for Australia’s space industry. The Australian Space Agency formally started operations in July 2018 after years of efforts by space industry advocates in the country to establish an agency. Among other activities, the agency recently finished work on a new set of regulations intended to make it easier for companies to perform launches in the country.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...