An evolution from grants to programs: A proven pathway to sovereign space capability

In this op-ed, Glen Tindall, the CEO of EOS Space Systems – an Australian manufacturer of space domain awareness systems – responds to the recent federal budget announcements that are set to benefit the space industry and discusses how the nation will need to work together to fulfil Australia’s interests in space. 

An evolution from grants to programs: A proven pathway to sovereign space capability
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Amid the headline-grabbing cost-of-living measures in the federal budget were two significant announcements that will have a long-term impact on Australia’s national security and sovereignty.

The first was $1.2 billion to establish a National Space Mission for Earth observation (EO). The goal of this mission is to secure access to key EO data, build Australia’s sovereign capability and enter agreements with international partners, including for the procurement and operation of Australian satellite cross-calibration radiometer (SCR) satellites. This effort will be led by the Australian Space Agency (ASA) in partnership with Geoscience Australia, the Department of Defence, CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

The second announcement – more modest in dollar terms, but no less noteworthy – was that the government will provide $9.5 million over two years from 2021–22 to develop a Space Strategic Update. This document will provide direction on future funding opportunities and align Australia’s space efforts with those of our allies and partners.

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The government and the ASA should be congratulated on these initiatives, which will be the catalyst for developing the capable sovereign space industry that this country requires.

As the Minister for Science and Technology, the Hon Melissa Price said in her statement on the announcement, this represents the most significant investment ever made in Australia’s civil space sector – and the benefits that flow from it will be wide-ranging.

It will not only make Australia more self-sufficient in relation to the data that is crucial to our day-to-day lives; it will also grow the capabilities of our space industry and create job opportunities that will help us to attract and retain some of the best talent in the sector. 

The goal of the SCR project – for Australia to manufacture its own satellites – is an appropriate first step for the mission, since it will help to mitigate a $1.9 billion threat to the Australian economy from denial-of-service risks due to Australia’s reliance on EO data from foreign providers. The sentiment that not having control of this data and relying on the satellites of other nations is a sovereign risk is echoed in the government’s recent Defence Space Strategy

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The conflict in Ukraine provides a timely case study in the benefits of data and information derived from sovereign controlled space assets and the risks of relying on capabilities delivered by foreign governments and businesses, whereby the capabilities delivered by foreign businesses and governments may come with conditions, restrictions and limitations. This produces a genuine domestic security risk that stems from not having full control of critical space capabilities. 

Another goal of the SCR project is to improve the value, reliability and accessibility of EO data, which is now fundamental to a broad cross-section of Australia’s economy and, thanks to productivity improvements, represents an annual benefit of $2.5 billion for sectors such as agriculture, mining, utilities, aviation, construction, health, tourism and retail. 

The SCR capability also supports significant cost savings to these sectors through better management of severe weather events. This year alone, Australia has responded to the most severe flooding across parts of NSW and Queensland experienced in decades. In this scenario, improved reliability of EO data and access to that data, delivered through a sovereign SCR capability, would support better tracking of water flows and a quicker, more focused emergency response. By drawing on a broader suite of calibrated satellites, our first responders would have access to more frequent, more reliable and ultimately more usable data. This can mean lives, not simply dollars, saved. 

Beyond the benefits of sovereign data, the announced investments will also help to grow Australia’s space sector in several ways, the most important of which will be through the development of a mature, self-sustaining sector.

The EO payload required to meet the capability needs of the SCR program will mark the first movement for Australia’s space industry away from nano- and micro-satellites and towards larger satellites capable of transporting heavier payloads, delivering more advanced capabilities and increasing the collective expertise of our space industry. 

Australia will now need a dedicated manufacturing capability to build sufficiently large satellites and the advanced sensors required for EO missions. This can be delivered through a concerted “Team Australia” approach that sees sovereign Australian space prime contractors lead local efforts to grow our industrial scale and capabilities by focusing on instrument development and larger space vehicles, with global partners supporting risk reduction through transfers of knowledge.

Such an approach will help Australian space businesses to move away from a reliance on one-off grants and towards a model driven by ongoing investment in programs of work – which is the only model of success seen in comparable markets overseas. This will provide Australian space businesses and their supply chain partners with demand and investment certainty, allowing them to raise capital and invest in ongoing development. This will eventually build the program of work and flight heritage that Australian businesses will need if they are to gain the Commonwealth’s trust and demonstrate an ability to deliver more complex sovereign space programs, including for Defence.

Ultimately, this will see our nascent space sector develop into a fully-fledged, self-sustaining industry and mark its first steps towards being a valuable contributor to the international space market and the capabilities of our allied partners, rather than simply a user of others’ data. 

While all of this investment is to be welcomed, it will need to be underpinned by certain guiding principles and a long-term vision if it is to have the required impact. This is the role of the Space Strategic Update.

The strategic update presents an opportunity to remove the siloed approach between civil and defence investment in space and to provide a coherent vision that allows industry and government to invest resources, funding and capability to accelerate the growth of the space industry. This would also prevent overlap and establish an open relationship between users and service providers in the Australian market to ensure that needs are being met in a collaborative way. Recent movement towards this outcome by the Department of Defence and the ASA is welcomed and should continue to be encouraged.

Given the crucial role of the private sector in developing our space capabilities, the government will need to engage broadly and closely with Australian industry as it develops this strategic update. This also means that industry has a responsibility to “step up” and assist in shaping the strategic vision in a collaborative manner, rather than drive competition in a fledgling industry, which ultimately weakens the sovereign market and provides an advantage to international primes.

Australia needs an overarching industry goal for space, and we need to back our local companies. Taking these steps will better guide valuable industry investment in the appropriate technology areas. Australian space businesses are ready to help to identify the opportunities and solutions that will create a fully mature space sector that can deliver for all Australians and our partners.

Isabella Richards

Isabella Richards

Bella Richards is a journalist who has written for several local newspapers, her university newspaper and a tech magazine, and completed her Bachelor of Communications (Journalism) at the University of Technology Sydney in 2020. She joined Momentum Media in 2021, and has since written breaking news stories across Space Connect, Australian Aviation and World of Aviation.

You can email Bella on: [email protected]

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