Australia’s integrated space ecosystem

| January 29, 2018

Our fledgeling Australian space agency will be born into a mix of competing government, university and commercial interests says Lloyd Damp, CEO of Southern Launch. Continuing our history of ‘aiming high’ will ensure that the space agency delivers an enduring and integrated space ecosystem.

“The greatest danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” – Michelangelo

I, like many fellow Australians, was overjoyed when the Australian space agency was announced. Finally, the first public acknowledgement that Australia intends to take a seat at the international space table. Almost immediately the discussions began on what this agency should look like, what its role will be, all the way down to who will lead it. But most importantly I believe what needs to be asked is “How high do we, Australia, want to aim?”. This will shape what the agency, and ultimately what Australia’s space legacy, will look like.

The strong position our commercial space companies are in has, for the most part, directed Australia on a journey back to space. Pioneering work done by Flurosat, Myriota, Fleet, Saber Astronautics, INOVOR, Neumann Space, Gilmour Space Technologies, Southern Launch, and others have catapulted Australia forward into the international arena. It is clear that we do, and should, aim very high indeed! Each one of these companies has identified a void in the domestic and international space market and found a product to fill it. Flurosat are reinventing crop management, Myriota and Fleet will connect our world using satellites in ways we never imagined, Saber is changing how we manage satellites, INOVOR and Neumann Space are building high tech satellites and propulsion subsystems, Gilmour Space Technologies are building the rockets to get satellites into space, and my company, Southern Launch is developing the launch pads and avionics to ensure rockets launched from Australia hit their intended orbits.

These companies mentioned above are but a small part of the wider Australian space environment that together forms a layered ecosystem of interdependencies, with each company poised to build on the foundation created by another. Simply put, data analytics needs satellites as a source of information, satellites need rockets to be put into space, and rockets need launch pads to shoot from (Figure 1). In Australia we can, and are, doing all of the above. Over time the commercial interdependencies between the Australian companies will strengthen and grow as their individual technologies mature, all helped by entities such as the National Space Innovation Hub.

But it is you, the consumer, who drives the commercial aspect of Australian space. The information derived through data analytics and operations, otherwise known as the downstream sector of space, defines the requirements for Flurosat, Myriota, Fleet and Saber. This then trickles down through the broader Australian space ecosystem, into the upstream sector, and finally defines both the location and size of my rocket launch complex.

Figure 1 The Layered Commercial Ecosystem

This is distinctly different to the ecosystem that exists within the government, comprised of Defence research and CSIRO, and university sectors. The ecosystem between these organisations is mostly based around fundamental and applied research activities with an opaque boundary delineating them.

It is into this mix of government, university and commercial interests that our fledgeling Australian space agency will be born. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. But to understand how these seemingly disparate worlds can have a symbiotic relationship we must understand the concept of Technical Readiness Levels (TRL).

The TRL scale was developed by NASA and the US Department of Defence to quantify how mature a technology is. At TRL 1 the technology is moving from being basic research into an applied application. By TRL 4 the technology has been demonstrated in the laboratory but is nowhere near being space ready. Come TRL 6 the technology is mature and is now a commercial prototype. Finally, at TRL 9 you, the consumer, are seamlessly using the benefits of the technology. A rule of thumb is that to progress from one TRL level to the next requires an order of magnitude increase in investment. Commercial companies usually work from TRL 6 onwards to bring a product to market, while universities and government agencies usually undertake the earlier underlying research and development (R&D).

Here is our opportunity to weave together our Australian space interests into a single space narrative through our new Australian space agency. By placing the Australian space agency across all space sectors it would link you, the consumer, and your requirements (TRL 9) to the fundamental research that needs to be undertaken to realise the future iterations of the products (TRL 1). Put a different way, by focusing on technology revolutions the Australian space agency can help steer universities and government to invest in promising low TRL research that develops the technology that changes the world when brought to market through a commercial company (Figure 2). Not only does that model ensure a robust technology ‘pull’ from consumer through to researcher, but also positions our existing commercial companies to bring a constant stream of innovations to market ensuring their continued survival and growth within the competitive International space market.

Figure 2 NASA TRL Scale with an Australian Space Agency Overlay

We have a rich history of “aiming high” being the fourth country in the world to launch a satellite when WRESAT went into orbit from Australian soil on 29 November, 1967. I hope we once again “aim high” by going beyond merely building, launching and operating our own satellites in the coming years from Australia. My vision is that our new Australian space agency creates an enduring and integrated space ecosystem across our economy that develops the future revolutions we will need to overcome our world’s greatest problems.