The start of a new space age

| June 8, 2021

We’re on the precipice of Space 2.0, a new space age defined not just by bold explorations, of which there will continue to be plenty, but by the movement of more and more of our day-to-day activities from the earth’s surface to space. Australians can take pride in their contribution to the first space age in the second half of the 20th century, but effort is needed if we are to optimise our position in this new era.

To be effective, Australia’s participation in global space development requires national coordination and cohesion. It requires a unified approach to exploit the geographic, geopolitical, technological and entrepreneurial advantages that can make Australia a leader in the space domain. That potential fell dormant in about the late 1960s, but from around 2015, a series of Australian government decisions started to change that.

Space 2.0 is primarily commercially driven; key innovations and drivers of progress lie outside government (in an inversion of the previous space age). This presents Australia with an opportunity to re-establish its reputation as a space power—one that comes with significant economic, industrial, environmental, foreign policy and national security benefits.

A clear political and strategic commitment to elevate the establishment of a sovereign space launch capability to a first-order national priority would send a powerful signal. Pieces of the complex strategic framework needed to support a successful commercial launch industry exist at various levels of maturity across our vast federated system.

A comprehensive sovereign launch strategy could drive coherence and fuse government priorities in space policy, foreign affairs, national security, modern manufacturing, regional development and tourism (including, in the future, space tourism).

As an organising principle for pursuing interdependent and vital national interests, space launch is a striking proposition. The time to act is now.

Some see the movement towards commercialisation of space as a development analogous in import to the emergence of the semi-conductor industry in the 1970s. Just as persistent and predictable declines in the cost of computing drove digitisation into an ever-increasing number of economic sectors, rapidly declining costs of constructing and launching satellites will drive ever more commercial activities into space.

An essential pre-requisite to participate in the growth promised by the space economy is secure access to launch services. Recent large investments in US launch vehicle companies indicate market confidence in rapid expansion of demand for access to space over the next decade. Four US companies raised US$2 billion over a six-month period to March, and each has announced intentions to make 300+ launches per year by 2025.

Right now, Australia has a window to attract international investment to build a secure, flexible, responsive and high-cadence launch capability to serve the growing global market. Building capability to serve this global demand now will be far more effective than attempting to displace other suppliers in future, once costs are sunk.

The question raised by these investments is, where will all of these spacecraft launch from? In 2020, a total of 112 launches were made to orbit. More than half of those came from China, Russia and Iran. Launch facilities in the US and elsewhere are at or near capacity, and bringing new space ports on line has proved challenging. Putting mega-constellations of satellites into orbit will require greater launch capacity, including for surgical precision in the replacement of malfunctioning or offline units.

Space ports represent a significant bottleneck for development of the global space economy. Opening this bottleneck offers an enormous opportunity for Australia. Geography and geopolitics give Australia several competitive advantages.

Australia is an economically and socially stable democracy as well as one of the United States’ most-trusted allies. Australia has proven it can be trusted to protect sensitive technologies, but to secure US investment and customers we need to formalise this through a bilateral technology safeguard agreement. A decision to negotiate such an agreement would spotlight Australia’s advantages precisely when international markets are awash with capital looking for space industry investments.

Australia’s vast geography offers many sites for traditional, vertical (rocket) launches to a variety of orbits, including equatorial as well as polar or sun-synchronous orbits, from within a single regulatory framework and system of infrastructure. Various sites can also support horizontal launches, offering access to a high degree of inclination safely and effectively. Australia’s planned launch sites contend with less commercial air and marine traffic than sites elsewhere in the world, as well as weather conditions that are more favourable, permitting greater launch responsiveness and frequency.

As powerful actors work to develop modular satellite designs and highly portable launch systems, Australia’s geography and growing manufacturing capability offer an option-rich southern hemisphere node within a resilient global space architecture.

Australia offers all of these attributes at scale for the global space economy as well as for sovereign launch. Exploiting these advantages, including through regulations that are internationally aligned and commercially attractive, while also ensuring environmental, cultural and physical safety, would create an unparalleled environment for secure, flexible, high-cadence launch.

This isn’t just a government concern. Australia’s launch site operators have the greatest interest in safety, because their reputations and commercial viability are on the line if things go wrong.

There’s a clear role for federal government leadership. A national strategy and coordinated policy settings are vital to attract international launch clients—particularly from the US. Prioritising the developing of a sovereign space launch capability would promote Australia’s natural advantages and the strengths of its existing (but small-scale) space industry.

Developing an investment and customer pipeline is vital to underpin commercial viability and realise economic and strategic benefits. This is an area in which Austrade is experienced and able and has existing international government and commercial relationships.

Federal-level mechanisms can most effectively bring together the necessary authorities, expertise, industry leaders, potential investors and customers to inform a sovereign launch strategy.

Australia’s private space port owners (Equatorial Launch Australia and Southern Launch) and leading Australian rocket companies (Gilmour Space and Black Sky Aerospace) have long sustained their vision and investment into Australia’s space launch potential; they bring vital perspective and expertise and they need support. State and territory governments are essential contributors to, and will be beneficiaries of, a whole-of-nation approach.

Success requires a single point of entry for foreign governments, international investors and customers. Australian space port and commercial launch development is a national interest and a national endeavour; it just needs a unified national strategy.

This article was written by Bec Shrimpton, head of the Defence, Space and Infrastructure Centre of Excellence at Austrade and a former senior adviser in the foreign minister’s office; and John Leslie, the director of trade and investment in Austrade’s San Francisco office. It was published by The Strategist.

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