Australia’s new space agency plans commercial focus

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BREMEN, Germany — A year after the Australian government announced plans to establish a national space agency, that office is now in operation with plans to help support the country’s emerging space industry.

At the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in September 2017 in Adelaide, Australia, the Australian government formally announced plans to establish a space agency. At the time, though, government ministers offered few details about how that agency would be structured or what it would do.

That agency, called simply the Australian Space Agency, formally started operations July 1 and is led by Megan Clark, former director of the Australian science agency CSIRO. Speaking at the 69th IAC here Oct. 2, she said the agency’s focus is on building up a small but growing space industry in the country.

“We’ve set the purpose of the agency to completely transform the Australian space industry and also to grow our industry,” she said. “We’ve set our purpose to be very commercially focused. We’re the most industry-focused space agency in the world.”

That includes, she said, helping a “vibrant startup community” in the country as well as helping major companies make use of space technologies and services to transform other industries. “We’re really pleased with the engagement we’ve had with industry,” she said.

Clark estimated that Australia’s current space industry generates about $4 billion (US$2.9 billion) per year, less than one percent of the global space economy. “We want to triple that by 2030,” she said. To help grow the industry, the agency also has a goal of attracting $1 billion of capital investment in space companies. “We really want to transform and kickstart this industry.”

Part of that work includes provide advice, formal and informal, to startups. “I think most of them have me on speed-dial,” she said.

One issue the agency will have to tackle is supporting a domestic launch industry in Australia. Startups in the country like Gilmour Space, which recently raised $14 million, are developing small launch vehicles, while others have identified Australia as a potential launch site.

“There were certainly two views across the nation” about launch, she said. Some argued that the country should support a launch industry, while others said the country should focus instead on using launch capabilities available elsewhere. “I think it would be fair to say that we would see the commercial drivers being the most important ones, rather than taxpayer investment.”

Clark said the agency has also been working on international partnerships, starting with the French space agency CNES and with the United Kingdom, whose partnership agreement was signed just before she spoke at the conference. Additional agreements with other countries are under discussion, she added; the Canadian Space Agency announced late Oct. 2 that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Clark.

She didn’t state if there were negotiations with NASA on a cooperative agreement. However, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted Oct. 2 that he had met with Clark. “I’m excited to explore ways to partner with Australia’s new space agency,” he wrote. “Australia’s government has supported NASA dating back to our earliest missions.”

Clark is also being advised by former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy, who interviewed Clark on stage at the IAC event. Melroy will also lead an upcoming Australian space industry trade mission to the United States.

Those partnerships, Clark suggested, could lead to a role for Australia on the proposed Gateway in cislunar space NASA plans to develop with international contributions. She said Australia’s experience in remote operations, such as running a giant mining complex in the country from a control center 1,500 kilometers away in Perth, could offer essential technologies for handling the Gateway, which will be uncrewed for extended periods between missions.

“We see this as a real opportunity to leverage Australia’s world-leading capacity in remote asset management,” she said, noting that doing such work in space could, in turn, improve remote operations back in Australia.

Although the agency has only been in operation for three months, it’s received a strong, positive response from the public. “I think what’s completely blown us away has been the response of the Australian public,” she said. “Even in the first 12 weeks, 20 million Australians have heard, seen or read about the agency. That was beyond our wildest expectation, and it really said to us that the nation wanted the agency. They were just completely behind what we’re doing.”