Lost in the space race

Lost in the space race

03 March 2011

published by www.smh.com.au

Australia — Does Australia need a sizeable space program?

In recent decades the answer from those who hold the nation’s purse strings has essentially been “No”.

Back in 1967, the launch of the WRESAT satellite made Australia just the fourth country in the world to launch its own satellite from its own territory. After that, though, Australia rapidly fell off the pace and it is now one of only a handful of developed nations not to have its own Earth observation satellite.

This seems less than ideal. In times of natural disasters, for instance, Australian governments find themselves in the strange position of having to rely on foreign governments to find out what is happening in Australia. During the Black Saturday bushfires, the Victorian Country Fire Authority got its satellite intelligence about the movement of bushfires from China’s National Space Administration.

Professor Malcolm Walter, director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of NSW, says the need to assess the risk of natural disasters such as fires and floods, and to monitor them as they occur, is one of many reasons why Australia would be better off with its own Earth observation satellite as part of an expanded space program. Others include mineral exploration, salinity mapping, and the monitoring of crops.

“We’re very reliant on the assests of other nations – if the US decided to turn off the GPS we’d be on our own,” Professor Walter says. “If we want assured access to defence assets and communications we need (our own satellites).”

Even with all the goodwill in the world – and with the ability to buy or barter time on foreign satellites to carry out jobs such as mineral mapping – the fact remains that other countries’ satellites aren’t always suited to Australian tasks

“Every launcher of satellites has their own tasks in mind, and their satellites are designed for their own purposes,” Professor Walter says.

Professor Walter uses mineral exploration as an example. In Canada, for instance, ice-age glaciation scoured the landscape, leaving behind “clean” rocks that are relatively easy to read. Australian rocks, by contrast, are often buried under sand and soil that has accumulated over eons, so different technology is required.

In the past few years the Federal Government’s Australian Space Research Program has awarded more than $34 million in grants to help develop Australian niche capabilities in areas such as scramjet technology and tracking space debris.

Professor Walter would like to see that expanded into a bigger program funded to the tune of “small numbers of hundreds of millions per year”. The kind of program he envisions doesn’t even involve Australia having a launch capability – other countries can handle the rockets. He says a program that focuses on developing technology would essentially pay for itself: NASA, the European Space Agency and Japan’s space agency rate the return on investment in space technology at 5:1 to 7:1 in terms of development of new industries and benefits to existing industries.

Space research is also renowned for producing spin-off technologies that end up having important applications in industry, medicine and everyday life.

Professor Walter also sees a payoff in terms of human capital: “My point of view as an academic is that lots of young people are passionately interested in space and it would be a good way to get them studying science and engineering and turn around the decline in those areas that’s been going on for 30 years.”

What do you think? Should Australia be investing more in space technology? If so, what kinds of projects would you like to see being funded?

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