It might be more an exploratory hop than a giant leap for mankind, but Australia nevertheless got serious about the science and business of space (the final frontier kind) in recent days.

The Federal Government has committed to establishing a national agencywith the aim of ensuring Australia has a long-term plan to develop its domestic space industry.

Acting Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Michaelia Cash, said the global space industry was growing rapidly and it was crucial Australia was part of the growth.

“A national space agency will ensure we have a strategic long-term plan that supports the development and application of space technologies and grows our domestic space industry,” she said.

reference group chaired by former CSIRO chief Megan Clark will provide advice to the federal government on the scope and structure of the agency by the end of March next year.

The Group has already sought views from industry, government and other bodies and has received almost 200 written submissions in response to its issues paper; and more than 400 people have been consulted through roundtables in each state and territory.

Senator Cash told a meeting of the International Astronautical Congress Industry (which included in the audience none other than Buzz Aldrin as well as our home-grown astronaut Andy Thomas) it was crucial to take the time “to understand that landscape, and create the structures and policies – and the agency – that are right for the industry of today and tomorrow, not the industry of yesterday”.

Strategic coordination

Leading scientists say bringing together the space industry under a strategic coordination framework must be the “first order of business”- a conclusion that forms part of the Australian Academy of Science’s Vision for Space and Technology in Australia, launched at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide.

Professor Fred Menk, Chair of the Academy’s National Committee for Space and Radio Science said much of the recent public discussion has focused on whether Australia should have a space agency.

“We certainly envisage a future – by 2027 or sooner – in which Australia will have a vibrant space sector and space industry, underpinned by a national space agency. Establishing a coordination framework for space science and technology in Australia must be a first order priority for our space agency,” he said.

“Australia has already developed many of the ingredients required to reap the benefits of a space industry – indeed, some areas are excelling. Substantial progress has also already been made within and between some organisations including the Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia and the Department of Defence.

“However, these contributors … do not yet form a cohesive and unified sector that is able to provide the full depth and breadth of rigour necessary to underpin operational sovereign space capabilities. They must be nurtured and grown in strategically prioritised and assisted ways.”

Future space missions

Meanwhile, UNSW Canberra and the Australian National University (ANU) will join forces to create “end-to-end capability for the design, assembly and testing of spacecraft for future space missions”.

The collaboration between the two universities is said to provide joint access to “world-class facilities at UNSW Canberra Space and ANU’s Advanced Instrumentation Technology Centre (AITC)”.

Dr Doug Griffin, Space Mission Lead at UNSW Canberra Space, said: “Space is a big industry, it is complicated and requires a diverse, yet unique set of skills. The UNSW Canberra agreement with ANU means Australia now has the facilities to come up to speed with the international space sector.”

In a separate development, a three-month study by a Master of Economics student from Italy, Annlisa Piva, on the Societal and Economic Benefits of a Dedicated National Space Agency for Australia (pdf) – published by Defence SA – says international experience suggests space agencies deliver value by providing a central point for academia, industry, defence and foreign entities “to collaborate among themselves and with government and to facilitate the flow of knowledge and capital”.

Source of growth

The report says the experience of the UK and Canada support the proposition that a dedicated national space agency “is an investment in the country’s future development, a source of growth and a driver of innovation”.

It says the UK currently captures a 6.5% share of the global space economy, and over the eight-years period between 2006-07 and 2014-15 experienced an improvement of £7.8 billion in space-related turnover; £4.48 billion of total value-added; and a total of 46,023 additional employment in the sector.

“If Australia is able to replicate the performance of the UK space economy over the first eight years following the establishment of the UK Space Agency, it is possible to extrapolate that over a similar time frame, there would be an absolute improvement of about A$5.3 billion (132% increase on current figures) and an increase in direct employment in the sector of about 11,700 jobs (102% increase on current figures).”