The new Australian Space Agency looks to give space start-ups a boost
“Growing how we use space will change how we live and work, including providing new opportunities for communication in regional and remote areas. Space will be a defining domain for human endeavour and will change what we do on Earth.” So said Dr. Megan Clark, AC, the head of the Australian Space Agency (ASA), which was founded last September and began operations in earnest on July 1.
In accordance with the statement Dr. Clark made at this year’s International Astronautical Congress, ASA has committed to becoming “one of the most industry-focused space agencies in the world.” Dr. Clark also notes that in other parts of the world, space exploration is transitioning from the realm of the government to the commercial sector — as evidenced by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
Preparing for Launch
Although Australia is stepping into the interplanetary game a bit later than other space-faring countries, now could be the perfect time to take advantage of renewed public interest combined with a bevy of fascinating space tech start-ups. Currently, the entirety of the Australian space industry generates about $4 billion per year with hopes to triple that number by 2030. To do so, ASA is investing in local companies.
Dr. Clark and her colleagues plan on sharing information with and providing advice to space start-ups looking for some guidance. Additionally, ASA hopes to secure $1 billion in investments for companies working in the space sector, giving the entire industry a much-needed boost.
A start-up of particular interest is Neumann Space, which has a patented solar/electric ion drive that can take metals found in space junk and on asteroids and turn them into fuel. The Neumann Drive, as it’s called, could potentially travel farther while refuelling along the way.
Although it has yet to be tested in space, it has proven to generate more specific impulse (the effective use of rocket propellant) than NASA’s HIPEP thruster — the previous gold standard. It seems as though the Neumann Drive will soon get its chance to be tested in space, however, as it is slated to be sent to the International Space Station.
With locations in Colorado, USA, and Sydney, Saber Astronautics is an international start-up that provides operations services for satellites from its Responsive Space Operations Centre (RSOC). Saber employs engineers who have worked on such high-profile projects as the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Additionally, it offers predictive analytics and mission control software through an innovative SaaS model that is uncommon in the space industry. Its downloadable software, P.I.G.I., features a video game-style interface that’s perfect for training employees but in-depth enough to provide mission-critical spacecraft diagnostics, live space data, and environmental analysis for satellites and spacecraft.
Another binational company, Gilmour Space is an Australian launch provider with headquarters in Queensland and Singapore, dedicated to building affordable hybrid rockets and low earth orbital (LEO) vehicles. The company has already raised $19 million for small satellite launches and is looking to keep its launch sites in Australia.
In the first quarter of 2019, Gilmour Space plans on launching an Aerial Launch Vehicle to send sounding rockets up to 150 km. By the fourth quarter of 2020, the company looks to launch its ERIS launch vehicle into low earth orbit, carrying a 400-kg payload.
ASA’s support of space start-ups could have additional terrestrial benefits, especially through the likes of Myriota. The company is addressing the Internet of Things needs of those who often are working in remote locations and therefore have limited access to the connectivity metropolitan people have.
Using LEO satellites that communicate with onsite microtransmitters, Myriota collects data, processes it in the cloud, then sends it back to the customers. Farms and other industries operating in remote locations benefit from low-cost sensor readings that increase efficiency and decrease environmental impact by providing information, including livestock and crop monitoring, asset management, water monitoring, and more.
ASA’s International Efforts
Of course, for ASA to be able to support these start-ups, it needs to be successful on its own — and it seems to be well on its way, thanks to international partnerships made with other space agencies. The United Kingdom, along with France’s CNES, have already agreed to partner with ASA, and the Canadian Space Agency has signed a “memorandum of understanding.”
While nothing has officially been announced regarding a partnership with NASA, Dr. Clark did meet with Jim Bridenstine, the administrator of NASA, in October. After the meeting, Bridenstein tweeted, “I’m excited to explore ways to partner with Australia’s new space agency.”
Such a partnership with NASA could be beneficial to both parties, especially with regard to the proposed Gateway, which aims to assist human missions to cislunar space (the area between Earth and the moon). This intriguing effort would further advance capabilities to explore the moon and eventually “feed forward” missions to Mars and other destinations in deep space.
Dr. Clark believes Australia could offer unique experience in operating in remote locations that will be valuable to the Gateway project. Remote mining technology used in the Australian countryside thousands of kilometres away from its command centre could assist the Gateway when its crew is out on expeditions. Working on such technology for the Gateway could additionally improve the remote operations employed by Australia’s mining industry.
Just a few months old, the Australian Space Agency certainly has a lot of promise — from launching satellites to exploring deep space, improving life on Earth, and more. In the next few years there will be even more tangible evidence of the benefits of the programme. Until then, we can rest assured that the sky is no longer the limit for Australian ingenuity.