The land Down Under will soon have its own official body in the exploration of all that exists above our heads.
The Australian federal government has announced an investment of $50 million to help seed the formation of a national space agency. The move, expected to generate thousands of jobs, is as much a strategic one as it is fiscal.
"We are dependent on other countries who can choose their own national interest over and above ours," Kim Carr, who serves as the Labor Party's science and research spokesperson, told Australia's ABC News. "We certainly need to be able to protect our domestic interests, we need to build our industry capability and we need to secure the jobs of the future for Australia."
While many believe Australia's pursuit of its own space agency is overdue –– indeed, some 72 other space agencies exist around the world –– the country's decision to wait-and-see has not been without benefits. Thanks to the rise of private aerospace giants like SpaceX and Blue Origin, space is no longer purely the domain (or financial burden) of government space agencies. And with private investment in space startups topping nearly $4 billion last year, it's clear that Australia is keen to tap into the new collaborative aerospace industry taking shape around the world.
"The $50 million injection is a great start for setting up the agency itself," Professor Anna Moore of Australian National University told ABC. "Australia is at the perfect time to jump in and grab part of this market because it is changing. There is industry here already but it's all at a very low level, there's nothing coming up."
Australia is geographically positioned to offer low-cost launches into space. (Photo: SpaceX)
While space agencies abound around the world, only seven have full launch capabilities. Australia, however, is geographically positioned to become an attractive launch site to both public and private aerospace companies around the world. Its Northern Territory (NT), located just 12 degrees south of the equator, would enable satellites to take advantage of speed boosts from the Earth's rotation to enter equatorial orbits using less fuel.
"We can access space orbit for much cheaper for the larger payload, and that's just hard to beat," NT chief minister Michael Gunner said.
One company, Equatorial Launch Australia, has already secured 150 acres of land in the Northern Territory to develop a launch site called the Arnhem Space Centre. Pending a space license, a request the new government agency is likely to help handle, the center plans on launching small satellites by the end of this year.
Seeding the future
The creation of a national space agency also gives Australia an incubator to help foster startups eager to grow into an industry estimated to be worth more than $3 trillion in 30 years. Early examples include Gilmour Space Technologies, which is developing a low-cost launch vehicle; Neumann Space, which has created a new ion engine; and Myriota, which uses micro-satellites to track everything from rain measurement to livestock monitoring. For those seeking careers in the space industry, such an agency will also help stem the dreaded "brain drain" to other countries.
"A national space agency isn't about sending people into space, it’s about creating people's jobs here in Australia," Dr Alan Duffy, a Research Fellow at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, told Gizmodo. "I have spoken to countless students who want to know how they can work in the exciting space sector without having to go abroad. With a national space agency, our best and brightest can now create a future economy right here."
With seed funding in place, the next step will be to decide where the headquarters of the agency will reside. Current thinking is that Canberra, the capital and government seat of Australia, will host the primary HQ, with satellite offices in each state assisting with local development and administration.
Regardless of the details, the fact that Australia is seriously entering into 21st century space exploration is, as journalist Andrew Street writes, the "purest expression of humanity at its glorious, brilliant best."
He adds: "At a time when division, cynicism, xenophobia and anti-science dogma is at an all-time high, now would be an excellent time to inject a bit of awe and inspiration about humankind into the public discourse."