Rosy future for Aussie space sector but great power space competition looms
What’s the next decade look like for Australia’s growing space sector? Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) space analyst Malcolm Davis reckons from the vantage of Canberra, the future looks rosy.
“Prospects are opening up for Australian companies to build and launch satellites on locally produced launch vehicles from Australian launch sites, supported by a vibrant but small Australian space agency,” he wrote in a recent analysis on the SpaceWatch Asia-Pacific website.
“Australia’s space sector is surging ahead from the days of passive dependency on foreign providers of space capability, and this is opening up new opportunities for Australia’s defence forces to exploit sovereign space capabilities in the coming decade and to burden-share in orbit.”
Dr Davis said Australia has demonstrated its desire to work with the US on the Artemis project to return humans to the moon, signing an important co-operative agreement.
That was signed just prior to the 2019 International Astronautical Congress (IAC) and is worth $150 million, which will be invested into the Australian space industry sector.
He said in the 2020s, space will emerge as the new domain for strategic competition.
“It’s no longer just an adjunct to terrestrial geopolitical rivalry. Astropolitics matters,” he said.
“Secondly, space commercialisation will open up the prospect for a fundamental shift in globalisation as the cost of accessing and using space drops and the potential for a space-based economy opens up.
“Thirdly, the falling cost of accessing and utilising space is seeing the rapid proliferation of state and commercial space actors that makes space a more complex, challenging, and dynamic domain in the next decade.”
The US ended 2019 with the establishment of the US Space Force, officially formed on 20 December.
The focus of the US Space Force is the low-Earth to geostationary orbit environment, akin to the ‘brown water’ in the maritime domain.
“In the 2020s, with the return to the moon by NASA under Project Artemis, and with the commercial space sector also eyeing a role on and around the moon, the question of the relevance of cislunar space – the blue water – to US national security will emerge as one of the most interesting debates in space policy,” he said.
Dr Davis said the US and allies were taking emerging Chinese and Russian counterspace capabilities seriously, reflected in how key actors are re-organising military structures with the prospect of warfighting in space in mind.
Yet at the broader level of national space activity, there was currently no US-China space race, he said.
However, China’s space program took a a big step forward with the successful launch of its Long March 5 heavy booster just after Christmas.
“A Chinese lunar program, building on the establishment of its space station by 2022 and the Long March 9 booster, could coalesce by mid-decade,” he said.
One scenario to consider might be this – if the Artemis project is delayed by funding shortfalls and in capability development related to the NASA Space Launch System (SLS) booster, how might Beijing react?
“Its space program has been slow and steady so far. Were a chance to beat the US back to the moon emerge, it would have potentially huge geopolitical prestige for a rising world power intent on challenging US strategic primacy,” he said.
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