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Australia’s space activities are poised for unprecedented expansion, but are our regulators ready?

Carley Scott

In the face of a global pandemic, there is one sector providing a lot more than just a glimmer of hope, that is the nation’s burgeoning space industry, explains Equatorial Launch Australia chief executive Carley Scott.

Australia’s space activities are poised for unprecedented expansion, but are our regulators ready?
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The burgeoning space sector presents unprecedented opportunities to ignite an economic recovery right now, and enhance the ability for target industries to deliver sustainable, diverse and accessible economic growth in Australia, longer term.

The key to unlocking this growth is identified in the Australian Space Agency’s (ASA) Strategy, which highlights access to space (launch) as the nation looks to play an increasing role in the forecast US$1 trillion global space market by 2040.

The ASA is not alone in this focus. An independent report by Euroconsult for Austrade (2019) predicted that the Australian launch market will be worth US$970 million over the 10-year period to 2033, further highlighting the opportunity for commercial space launch from Australia.

Bringing this future opportunity into perspective, the near-term prospect of commercial launch from Australian soil is very real. The Australian commercial launch sector is ready to engage, and already signing big customers.

In 2019, Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA) secured a world-first contract with NASA, thrusting Australian commercial launch into global headlines. The launch to space of NASA’s rockets is scheduled from the Northern Territory site in 2021.

ELA has made significant regulatory progress with environmental approval and development approvals in place to support more than 20 commercial agreements for the site going forward.

Detailed development designs are complete, and a team of 13 construction workers including 10 Yolngu First Nations space sector employees are laying the foundation for launch and the future of suborbital and orbital activity from the site.

Building on this momentum, Southern Launch has also announced plans for two launch sites in South Australia, with orbital launch from the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex, and suborbital launch at the Koonibba Test Range.

Commercial suborbital launches are on schedule to start at Koonibba in 2020 with orbital launch contracted to begin from Q2 2021 from Whalers Way. As a further indication of market demand, over 10 other defence and commercial customers from Australia and abroad have signed agreements with Southern Launch to access their launch sites.

Not to be outdone, the Queensland government has announced plans to investigate Abbot Point as a future launch site that could support the growth of 6,000 space sector jobs in the state.

Understandably, government more broadly is also showing interest in economic figures as launch customers express strong interest in moving their manufacture and assembly operations to Australia.

This move is driven by a desire to optimise costs and reduce logistics and supply chain distances, and results in the resurgence of Australia’s high-tech manufacturing base, potentially worth billions of dollars, and thousands of jobs to the nation.

These new commercial activities build on a history of launch in Australia. Woomera undertaking defence work from South Australia for decades, and Black Sky Aerospace delivering Australia’s first successful commercial payload rocket launch near Goondiwindi in Queensland during 2018, with support from the Northern Territory government.

A strong demonstration of the cross-state collaboration that helps industry grow.

With so much happening around Australia, the next question is generally ‘who will use these sites going forward?’ Which, to those working in the field, may seem self-evident.

In addition to the potentially conservative Euroconsult report, the Australian government’s Force Structure Plan 2020 provides a purely sovereign perspective with up to $6.9 billion of space domain investment dedicated to satellite communications over the coming 10 years, much of which may be absorbed by the local launch market.

Inovor Technologies is a world-leading supplier of next-generation small satellite technology, providing turnkey solutions for commercial, government and research clients wanting missions flown in space. Matt Tetlow, CEO of Inovor Technologies, said, “We are building satellites in Australia. Launch from Australia will close the loop and offer a complete sovereign space capability for Australia. This will also make our space industry more competitive globally.”

CEO of Black Sky Aerospace Blake Nikolic said, “Interest in Australian launch has dramatically increased in the last decade. It is driving strong demand for Australian made rockets, to service local and international payloads.”

Following successful engine tests, CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies, Adam Gilmour, identifies ongoing demand for Australian launch vehicles and sites through his discussions with signed and potential customers. Gilmour said that his “estimate of the global launch market, for small satellites alone, will be US$5 billion by 2025” and “there is no reason that we (Australia) couldn’t get 20 per cent of that.”

Based in the ACT, Skykraft specialises in the conceptualisation, design and manufacture of small satellite constellations for the delivery of space-based global services. It is actively developing a small satellite constellation for space-based global air traffic management systems.

James Prior, managing directo, said, "The developmental cycle along with the full constellation roll-out will require multiple launches, which will be more efficient if we can access local and cost-effective launch services."

With industry activity, government forecasts and national strategic goals in mind, perhaps the question should be less about the demand for launch from Australia, and more ‘are regulators positioned to facilitate this growth?’

All eyes are now on the Australian Space Agency, which had worked hard to review the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 and amend legislative instruments (rules) that guide the approval of industry launch permits.

With a number of launch sites identified, market opportunities evidenced, and significant contracts announced in 2019, industry and politicians now look to the ASA for announcements relating to granted approvals.

This is a critical market indicator that the jobs and economic growth made possible by industry are being enabled by regulation as planned.

Growth, either through domestic or international investment as equity or launch contracts, must see a show of support from the Australian federal government. Put simply, growth in the space industry requires two core ingredients: financial project commitments that underpin the launch industry, which are already being demonstrated, and approval of launch permits that acknowledge the maturity and opportunity presented by the sector.

As CEO of ELA, Scott oversees a skilled team who have secured launch contracts. She also emphasises how important launch approvals are, saying, “ELA has attracted significant investment to deliver space launch for recognised customers, we are at a critical juncture now where regulatory efficiency is certainly in the spotlight.”

Damp echoed that sentiment, saying, “The launch sector has had good conversations with the agency, and are working hard to support positive decisions. Timing of application decisions is really important for all of us now.”

Launch approval costs are also in focus for industry. Gilmour said, “The agency’s announcement about a delay on a cost recovery model was a welcomed start. We have to remain cost competitive, and the approach by regulators will play an important role here.”

If a cost recovery model is introduced, Australia will become the first OECD nation to apply an equivalent tax on launch operations and potentially stifling an embryonic industry.

Industry representative body the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) has been engaging with industry and the ASA on launch.

Deputy chair of the SIAA, Tim Parsons, said, “Launch is a significant element within our overall industry growth setting.

It drives enhanced strategic sovereign capability and builds efficient pathways for a broad spectrum of businesses, research and government entities to grow. We will continue to advocate strongly for a setting that promotes safety, efficiency, and industry opportunities going forward.”

As the nation looks to rebound from a global pandemic, strengthen international collaboration, and position the economy for exciting long-term growth, Australian launch will continue to be a hot topic for politicians and industry alike.

It is a critical area ripe for the agency to activate, and an enduring beacon for the dynamic economic opportunities that the space sector can deliver to the Australian economy for years to come.

Carley Scott is the chief executive of Melbourne-based launch company Equatorial Launch Australia. 

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