Australians are famous for our love of travel, but now we’re taking it up a notch with the arrival of the Australian Space Agency (ASA).Space has always captured our interest. It has dominated popular culture for decades with perhaps the pinnacle being the moon landing of 1969 (look no further than the recently released movie First Man, about Neil Armstrong). Exploring the final frontier has traditionally felt like a quintessentially American pursuit, with NASA pushing boundaries and exploring ever further into the interplanetary system. Even energy company CEOs have sent electric vehicles into space, with further plans to send the first ‘moon tourist’ to fly around the moon by 2023.
But during the 1960s, Australia was a significant player in space exploration and two years before the moon landing in 1967, Australia became the third nation, after the United States and Russia, to launch a satellite into space. Since that point three Australian-born astronauts have made it into space – one aboard Apollo 14 in 1971 and two on subsequent space shuttle missions.
Most people’s closest connection between Australia and outer space would be at Parkes Observatory, in New South Wales, where The Dish (completed in 1961) has been a crucial link in space exploration for almost 60 years. Its radio antennas were able to receive live television images of the moon landing. The ABC has described The Dish as ‘the most successful scientific instrument ever built in Australia’.
That all may seem like a long time ago but now, after many years out of the limelight, Australia has signalled its intent to the world by establishing the very first Australian Space Agency (ASA) last July. Airbus, who recently based the world’s first unmanned solar powered aircraft out of Wyndham in Western Australia, and the ASA have signed a statement of intent confirming the European manufacturer’s commitment towards enhancing the capability and competitiveness of the country’s space sector.
Dr Megan Clark AC, Head of the Australian Space Agency, formerly of our partner CSIRO, said: ‘Our purpose is to transform and grow the Australian space sector, and the broader use of space across the country’s economy, to inspire and deliver benefit to all Australians.’
There are a number of domestic space industry pioneers already attracting international acclaim. Torquay, Victoria native Elizabeth Jens, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, designs propulsion systems for small space vehicles. In recent years, she’s been focusing on a cold-gas system to support NASA’s next Mars rover, which will launch in 2020, and fuelling small space vehicles that will orbit around other planets.
Gilmore Space Technologies in Queensland, recent beneficiaries of $24M investment from venture capitalists, are also developing rocket propulsion systems for satellites, capable of carrying 100kgs, that they hope to launch into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by 2020. By 2021 they plan to launch a ‘clustered-engine’ vehicle that can carry an even bigger load of 400kgs. Gilmore Space is pioneering new hybrid-engine rockets that combine a liquid oxidiser with a proprietary multi-material 3D printed solid fuel.
A thriving space industry in Australia could be a significant growth area for job creation, fostering innovation and attracting the best talent from around the country and beyond. These advances will directly benefit our domestic energy industry as boundaries are continually pushed, especially with regard to renewable energy. Low orbit satellites and long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles all require solar cells that are ultra-efficient, extremely light and resilient to outer space radiation.
According to University of NSW research, the market for solar cells could be worth $700M by 2025.
But perhaps most importantly it will imbue young Australians with a belief that anything is possible, and you won’t have to leave the country to fulfil your interstellar dreams…though you might well leave the planet.