Priorities for space

| January 18, 2018

After considered discussions with colleagues in the space science and technology community, Professor Frederick Menk shares his perspective on the purpose of a national space agency and how it will best serve Australia.


As we await details of the proposed space agency, we need to be clear about its purpose and how it can operate to provide the best return for the nation. The following perspectives are informed by discussions with colleagues in the space science and technology community including an open forum at the recent Australian Space Research Conference.

What should the agency do?

Australia needs leadership in space-related activities, engaging our national and sovereign interests. We have world-class expertise in areas of space science and applications, in industry and government groups including defence. However, activities are largely disparate and need focus to stimulate the coherent development and growth of a sustainable space ecosystem. Strategic national priorities and processes are required to coordinate this expertise and grow capacity. We should use our skills to develop space-related knowledge, products and services which target global opportunities and return national benefits; we should be able to lead national programs and partner with international agencies; and we must protect our own interests.

Space science and technology are also ideal platforms to inspire the public and the next generation. Many excellent activities already take place at state level but there is no national framework. The International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide put us on the world map, and Australia’s activities will be in the spotlight when we host COSPAR, the world’s leading space science conference, in Sydney in August 2020.

How would these aims be achieved?

The agency must be a civilian entity to enable it to suitably engage with national and international activities. However, it needs high level leadership representing the major areas of interest: academia, industry, government, and defence. Its activities should be informed by decadal, strategic and community plans developed by learned academies and expert groups.

The agency must provide an authoritative national voice able to make long term commitments including with international partners. This requires a sustainable funding commitment and a suitably stable location within government. A partnership with state governments can incentivise and allow return on their commitments.

While a key aim is to stimulate innovation and develop the SME industry sector, the engagement of major industry provides the capacity to anchor and foster long-term whole of sector growth.

We also need a narrative to frame our engagement in space. We use knowledge of our land to develop resources and commodities for national benefit. We use our sea territories to improve knowledge of our climate and ecosystem, exploit marine resources, and protect our borders. The space above our territories is the third part of the system. Managing and utilising this connected environment will stimulate scientific and industrial innovation, improve understanding of our land and marine resources, the climate and space weather, and better protect our sovereign interests.

Finally, challenging major projects can provide a strategic focus for our engagement in space. Possibilities include: small satellites for remote sensing (hyperspectral imaging, radio occultation) the atmosphere and ground, to enhance resource monitoring and exploitation and improve climate modelling; a national program to enhance global navigation and positioning services, allowing the development of precision agriculture and advanced logistics applications; a space weather and space situational awareness capability providing dominant coverage of the southern hemisphere. In addition, ‘blue sky’ projects excite public interest and allow us to showcase scientific expertise and technical spin-offs on an international stage.

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Frederick Menk

Fred Menk is Conjoint Professor of space physics at the University of Newcastle and chair of the National Committee for Space and Radio Science. His research interests focus on the physics of near-Earth space, related instrumentation, and improving radiation treatment of cancers. He is an advocate for growing Australia’s space science activities, and is a member of the local organising committee for COSPAR 2020 in Sydney. Fred has served in a range of academic and international research leadership roles and has authored over 150 publications in space science and medical physics. He has mentored over 30 PhD students and is joint recipient of two Engineers Australia excellence awards. He served as Education Program manager in the Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems and has convened numerous international symposia and national outreach events.