Australia: Lost in Space?

Monday 25 September 2017

Article by Celeste Dougherty


Australia is an indispensable member of the global space community. It has been a key player in every deep-space mission conducted by NASA since 1957[1]—including the moon landing, the New Horizons’ Pluto mission and the landing of Curiosity’s Mars rover[2]—and a vital contributor to many other countries’ space programs.

Although Australia clearly acknowledges the space industry’s importance, the federal government remains hesitant to support it as most other advanced nations support theirs. Earlier this year, Science Minister Arthur Sinodinos announced that Australia’s space capability would be reviewed[3]. As this goes forward, given that employment, innovation and national security remain the government’s top priorities, Australia must focus on developing a space agency and on promoting active international cooperation. Here’s why and how:

The Importance of Satellites

Australian Space Agency

It is no secret that Australia is a large, dry continent with an extremely disperse population. What is perhaps less well known is the extent to which it relies on satellites. However, Australia isn’t even close to being autonomous in its capacity to meet its space, science, technology and data demands. The few satellites that Australia does own are classed as “second-tier” space assets meaning that they are task-specific, limited in geographical focus and restricted to travel along an equatorial plane[4]. The majority of space-related data Australia routinely needs is purchased for $5b+ annually[5] from countries that own “first-tier” satellites (i.e. satellites that can be purposed for all kinds of activities and maintain polar orbits)[6], such as China and Japan.

Without “first-tier” data, Australians would be unable to predict weather patterns, to use ATMs, mobile phones, internet or televisions and, perhaps more importantly, would be missing the means to monitor environmental disasters (such as the 2009 'Black Saturday' bushfires in Victoria).  Its reliance on other nations makes Australians especially vulnerable to geopolitical tensions. But, even if Australia preserves cordial relations with nations on whom they depend for satellite technology, there are still complications. When Australia requests that a foreign satellite generate data about crops, livestock or mining activity, a wealth of precious information is essentially gifted to others, thereby eroding any competitive advantage Australia might have in the commodity market. This is increasingly problematic when considering the extent to which Australians rely on these industries to generate revenue and provide jobs. Evidently, satellite technology is critical and Australia clearly needs its own space-based infrastructure. But satellite infrastructure on such a scale requires a nationally coordinated effort led by a team with a clear vision on policy and strategy — hence the need for an Australian space agency.

The European Space Agency?

Instead of creating its own space agency, Australia could also seriously consider becoming a member of the European Space Agency (ESA) and start using its domestic intellectual and technological capabilities to design and build space technology instead of importing it. Membership to the ESA costs a relatively modest $20m per annum[7] and, according to Andrea Boyd, Flight Operations Engineer at the International Space Station, would provide “a 1:1 georeturn of all membership fees in the form of work contracts and grants to Australian companies, universities and organisations”[8]. Canada, the only other non-European country offered membership to the ESA[9], joined in 1979 and saw its national space sector go from virtually non-existent to generating multi-billion annual revenues[10]. If Australia were to follow suit, it could acquire all of the satellite data it currently outsources, create tens of thousands of jobs, send domestically-built hardware and software into space, and collaborate with a community of international innovators.

An Australian Space Agency

That said, it seems preferable for Australia, a G20 national far from Europe, to create its own autonomous agency. Naturally, the benefits of membership of a space agency would trickle down into other areas of the economy and would enable Australia to create employment and facilitate scientific coordination on a national and international scale. One of only two OECD nations with no space agency[11] expressing a clear, long-term vision, Australia is in dire need of one if it has any hope of tapping into a multi-billion dollar industry. Consider space mining, an obvious industry of the future in which Australia should be a global leader. Until then, its national defence, agricultural, communication, entertainment and financial needs will remain vulnerable to the whims of internal politics and it may miss out on commercial opportunities other countries are successfully and increasingly benefiting from.

Celeste Dougherty recently completed an internship at AmCham in Sydney. 

[1] Williams, D. (2017). Australia's Part in 50 years of Space Exploration with NASA. [online] The Conversation. Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

[2] Crofts, C. (2016). New Zealand Is Getting A Space Agency. [online] National Geographic - Australia. Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

[3] Conifer, D. (2017). Australia Could Enter Space Race, With Slice of $420 Billion Pie up for Grabs. [online] ABC News. Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

[4] Lamberts, R. and Franzen, R. (2011). Australia in Space: Letting Others Watch Us ... But at What Cost?. [online] The Conversation. Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

[5] Boyd, A. (2017). Innovation in Outer Space and Opportunities for Australia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

[6] Lamberts and Franzen, Australia in Space

[7] Bingemann, M. (2017). Join European Space Agency, Expert Warwick Holmes Urges Australia. [online] The Australian. Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

[8] Boyd, A. (2017). Innovation in Outer Space and Opportunities for Australia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

[9] Bingemann, Join European Space Agency

[10] European Space Agency | Agence Spatiale Europ éene (2017). Canada and The European Space Agency Three Decades of Cooperation. [online] Noordwijk: ESA Publications Division, p.6. Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].

[11] Yosufzai, R. (2017). 'Space Agency' One Option as Australia Pursues $420b Space Technology Sector. [online] SBS. Available at: [Accessed 18 Aug. 2017].




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