5 mins read 15 Feb 2021

Advancing Space in 2021 - Targeting Communications

The Australian Space Agency has released the first roadmap from it’s ‘Advancing Space’ vision, focusing on the strategic objectives of communication technologies and services that will drive the future ambitions of the Australian space sector.

The radio antennas of the Canberra Deep Space Communication Centre. Credit: CDSCC.

Last week The Australian Space Agency released further information about their Communications Technology and Services roadmap, outlining ambitious plans as part of its Advancing Space objectives, which include a number of facilitating measures trained on transforming Australia into a global space competitor. 

The ‘Communications Technologies and Services’ roadmap is one of seven identified ‘national civil space priority areas’ presented as significant opportunities for the Australian space sector in the ‘Advancing Space’ strategy. Future roadmaps include Earth Observations, Robotics, Leapfrog R&D, and Access to space. 

This roadmap intends to direct focus on growing the economy through space sector communications technology and services applications in agriculture, remote medicine, military and resources, anticipating significant positive impacts to the products and services that the Australian public use every day. 

In delivering multiple ‘cross-cutting’ roadmaps over the course of 2021, The Australian Space Agency aims to provide direction into areas with strongest market demand, that are also tipped to grow over the next decade, whilst highlighting and advancing segments that Australia has the ability to compete in globally.

NASA’s Terra satellite - captured fires in Eastern Australia and Smoke over the Pacific Ocean on Nov. 13, 2019.

The Communications Technologies and Services technical roadmap was developed in collaboration with 10 universities and 24 Australian companies through industry associations and consortia. The consultation resulted in six focus segments targeted for development, including Lower Earth Orbit Satellite services, Optical ground stations, Hybrid RF-optical communications, Reconfigurable networks, radios, modems and waveforms, Satellite communication network management tools and Quantum enabled communications. There are also implications for the Australian manufacturing industry by growing commercial markets around these technologies.

Whilst almost seamlessly woven into our everyday lives, space-based communication technologies and services are not always obvious in our daily existence. But Australians are actively expanding our reliance on them each year; through increasing use of networked IoT devices for use in precision farming, crop, weather, and bushfire monitoring, streaming entertainment, telehealth and connecting socially in times of social distancing. All such activities require a high degree of network usage, putting exponential demand on existing communication service providers. 

According to the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research, demand for data grew at approximately 50% per household from 2006-2019 (for Australian households with fixed-line connections). As part of this growth, applications and services from space became more central to end-users’ needs across the nation.

Mobile communication infrastructure is ubiquitous in Australian cities. Credit: Leonard J Matthews.

In logistical and military contexts on Earth or in space; the importance of harnessing the right information at the right time creates, in part, a growing need for information assurance in exceedingly complex networking environments. Projections of growing complexity in these contexts, together with higher levels of autonomous technology are taken into account in the Space Agency's vision.

Innovations that allow for increasing access to satellites in a range of orbits as well as extending hybrid RF/optical communications capabilities within an (optimally) regulated spectrum was also listed as areas of opportunity in which Australia could be globally competitive.

Copernicus Sentinel data (2019-20) of Wheatbelt region over Western Australia, processed by ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

In terms of what is in store for the next decade, the technical roadmap also alludes to what Australia may have the potential to advance to market, such as quantum technologies. 

In their May 2020 ‘Growing Australia’s Quantum Technology Industry’ report, Australia’s national commercial science agency, CSIRO, stated that the security advances from quantum enabled communications were expected to significantly transform data security in sectors like finance and defence. 

Australia is currently a leader in quantum memory research, which is an emerging commercial area globally. The roadmap specifically identifies quantum memory, keying and receiver technologies as capabilities Australia is uniquely positioned to lead into the future.

With regard to who would be enabling quantum information assurance and other identified future capabilities, the roadmap discusses how STEM professionals have a role to play in not only enabling the space sector but also to continually pass those skills to other sectors, spreading greater economic advantage across the nation. It is clear that a STEM-educated workforce will underpin any success in these areas.

Space Agency Progressing with Objectives

Credit: ThisIsEngineering/Pexels.

An investment of $235 million from the Australian government has been allocated to implement the Civil Space Strategy (which these technical roadmaps form part of) through the Australian Space Agency, to consult, design and help implement. This work is now underway, with the remaining roadmaps to be released later in 2021. 

Work has also commenced on the Australian Space Discovery Centre in South Australia, with the centre expected to open in the third quarter of the year. 

Recently, the incumbent Head of the Australian Space Agency Enrico Palermo, who joined the Agency’s operations this year, stated, now that the agency is in its third year of operations, there will be a strong focus on delivery.

“We will continue delivering technical roadmaps to support our Civil Space Priority Areas. We will also continue setting the pathway for safe space-related activities for the nation, on Earth and in space while encouraging innovation and entrepreneurialism,” he said.