New agency takes us from the outback to outer space

Australia leapt out of the space race starting blocks in 1967, becoming just the third nation in the world to build and launch its own satellite.

Fifty years later, it lags behind countries such as Kazakhstan, Bolivia and Peru as one of the only developed economies without a national space agency.

The federal government's announcement on Monday to establish such a body was met with enthusiasm and excitement.

But those familiar with Australia's space industry also wondered why the move had taken quite so long.

Earth scientist and ANU Future Fellow Dr Penny King said creating a national space organisation was an exciting and "obvious move".

"There are so many good reasons for having a national space agency," she said.

CSIRO's Square Kilometre Array radio telescope in Western Australia. Photo: Alex Cherney

CSIRO's Square Kilometre Array radio telescope in Western Australia. Photo: Alex Cherney

"For example, when NASA and the European Space Agency get together and plan for the future, we can now, through our agency, have a seat at the table and make those partnerships formally.

"I'm absolutely excited, it's a really welcome announcement."

One of Australia's first forays into space came in November 1967, with the launch of the WRESAT satellite at the Woomera test range in outback South Australia.

In doing so it laid claim to being just the third nation to build and launch a satellite on its own soil, following in the footsteps of the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Space Race.

WRESAT - or the Weapons Research Establishment Satellite - weighed 45 kilograms and circled the Earth 642 times before burning-up in the atmosphere somewhere over Ireland, according to the Department of Defence.

"The project aimed to improve the understanding of the effect of the upper atmosphere on climate and weather and assist the United States in obtaining physical data for research programs," said the department.

"Such was the interest in space technology that the WRESAT prototype was exhibited in Parliament House, Canberra, and at the London Trade Fair in 1968."

Astronomer Dr Alan Duffy from Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology said it was fitting the space agency announcement had been made 50 years since the Woomera launch.

"This marks 50 years since Australia built and launched its first satellite, putting us third in the world at the time behind the US and the USSR," he said.

"We have a great legacy, and I guess the polite way of putting it is that, sometimes it takes time to get things right."

From such promising beginnings, Australia now finds itself behind an eclectic list of countries with long-established national space agencies.

Peru established theirs in 1974, Kazakhstan followed in the early 1990s and Bolivia came to the table relatively late in 2012.

Alongside Iceland, Australia is the only other country in the OECD without a national space organisation.

A report prepared for the Australian government in 1998 suggested the country's space industry had "failed to flourish" because there was no significant domestic space program.

"Given our history of involvement in British and later European space programs, as well as a continuing support role in NASA activities, one might have expected that Australia would have moved beyond its peripheral role," technology advisor Matthew James wrote.

"However, successive governments only committed small funds towards a space program and its high technology industries, and might be said to have regarded space as a high-risk arena and Cold War relic."

That is not to say the Australian space industry has been neglected in the five decades that followed the Woomera launch.

There are pockets of technical excellence in areas such as remote sensing, satellite communication and navigation, and the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is one of NASA's three major tracking stations worldwide.

Nor is the establishment of a national space agency a novel idea.

The Hawke government established the Australian Space Office in 1987 and the Coalition floated a proposal for a national space agency in 1996.

Dr Duffy said the difference with the recent announcement was that individual states and territories had forced the government's hand.

"Either way the effort of the state governments to create a hub for space economic activities has resulted in this nationwide effort and that can only be good for us all," he said.

Australia's space industry is estimated to employ between 9,500 and 11,500 people and thought to be worth as much as $4 billion per year, according to a 2016 review by Asia Pacific Aerospace Consultants.

With concerted effort it was easy to imagine this $4 billion doubling in a relatively short period of time, Dr Duffy added.

"The space economy is worth $420 billion each year globally, and is growing faster than China. This is a sector we want to be involved in."

Astronomer Dr Michael Brown from Monash University was excited by the announcement but eager to see a bit more flesh on the bones.

"We still need the details, but I'm optimistic that Australia can develop its own satellites and be partners - rather than bystanders - in multi-national space projects," he said.

A reference group led by former CSIRO chief Dr Megan Clark has been tasked with developing a charter for the agency, due to be released in March next year.

Professor Simon Driver from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research said the whole of Australia stood to gain from the initiative.

"The specific charter and details are now in the hands of the Megan Clark review, which will deliver its report in March 2018," he said.

"The expectation is that every state has the capacity to both contribute and benefit enormously from this action."

This story New agency takes us from the outback to outer space first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.