8 mins read 20 Jan 2022

New Australian Decadal Space Science Plan Released

The Australian Academy of Science has released a new report, Australia in Space – a decadal plan that brings the thoughts of experts and community together to provide a strategic 10-year roadmap of Australian space science.

Australia from space. Credit: DSCOVR.

The Australian Academy of Science has today released the organisation’s decadal plan, outlining a forward-thinking investment strategy to both protect Australia’s national interest, and to inspire the next generation of Australian space scientists amongst young people.

The report, titled Australia in Space, covers the period 2021 – 2030 and makes a number of recommendations designed to ensure maximum engagement with the Australian public when it comes to space-based activities, as well as determination of objectives that will ensure Australia becomes much more resilient and independent through its growing space economies.

The decadal plan took shape through broad consultation with the space communities to identify strengths, aspirations and imperatives, as part of 10 expert working groups that covered areas such as space research, communications, education, space-based science/health programs and the changing face of the space workforce. This process occurred through town hall meetings, consultations, surveys, and solicited peer review processes starting from 2019, through to 2021.

The report envisions Australia becoming a bigger and more respected partner in the global community of spacefaring nations, with Australian scientists, researchers, engineers and industry-leading sovereign space missions and space-science projects.

The 10-year plan also highlights other challenges facing Australia’s space research and development (R&D) sector that must be addressed to ensure Australia’s space economy is competitive and to mitigate sovereign risk Australia currently faces. These include a significant workforce skills gap, an ad-hoc funding environment, and a lack of a national strategy for space with no long-term plan to address knowledge and capability gaps.

Emeritus Professor Fred Menk, who is Chair of the Executive Working Group that developed the plan, says while the Australian Government’s recent investments in space are stimulating growth of the space industry sector, the space science research and innovation capabilities necessary to develop a sustainable national space ecosystem have not been similarly enabled.

“Australia must have a space industry of its own - one that we can turn into a high-tech manufacturing, knowledge-based, research-supported, export industry in a world hungry for it,” said Professor Menk.

“An internationally competitive space industry in Australia will depend on a foundation of excellence in science and technology.”

Inspiring the Future of Australian Space-science

Credit: ThisIsEngineering/Pexels.

Amongst the recommendations made in the report is a strong focus on building a robust educational platform that fosters and seeds the next generation of minds that will fuel the future of the Australian space communities and industries.

This includes the establishment of a Lead Scientist role (that sits within the Australian Space Agency) which will develop space science policy and facilitate cross-sector (and international) engagement. An integrated national space innovation and education strategy (also led by the Australian Space Agency) that integrates with the curriculum across primary, secondary, tertiary, VET and industry sectors is also described.  

The Lead Scientist’s role with the Space Agency is expected to be a respected and representative voice for Australian space science, enhancing engagement between academia, government, and commercial industries, whilst supporting space-related education and training across the nation.

Similarly, the Australian Space Agency has been charged with the development of a national space education strategy that will oversee professional development and mentoring programs, host regular science-government-industry workshops to promote collaboration, and further diversify the Australian space communities to become more inclusive of minorities.

Another recommendation made in the report is the establishment of small space science missions to advance knowledge of the Solar system, including its formation and evolution, how the Sun interacts with Earth, returning to the Moon and how humans can enable technology to obtain in-situ resources in space (such as robotic asteroid and lunar mining capabilities). Additionally, a further science question as to how and why Earth was special enough for life to form on and understanding the habitability of other worlds across the Galaxy.

These recommendations provide the foundation for the strategy, leading to inspiration and growth of the Australian space workforce over the decade, by linking the next generation with arising opportunities across the sector and questions that can be approached through interdisciplinary science and industry methods. For example, Australia’s excellent skills and technology capability from the mining sectors could be transferred into space-related programs that assist with mining resources on the Lunar surface or in-situ amongst the asteroids.

Building Stronger Sovereign Space Capability

Middleton, Queensland as observed from space by the Copernicus Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 satellites. False colour image, data processed by Dr. Peter Scarth. Credit: Sentinel/P. Scarth.

A key highlight of the report outlines the risks associated with how Australia is completely resilient on Earth Observation (EO) information from foreign-owned satellite infrastructure – assets which are vital in providing real-time data reactively (and importantly) when emergency situations arise (such as natural disasters), as well as proactively (such as weather forecasting, or resource / water management).

Experts have indicated that this risk can be mitigated by a deeper investment in a home-grown Australian EO satellite program with CubeSats, sensors and full-sized satellites being designed and built locally, before using sovereign launch and operation capabilities to manage them ongoing.

Tragically, in the last few days, the violent volcanic eruption near Tonga has proven another example of this gap in Australia’s capability – in this case, even to provide space-based assisted services to our Pacific neighbours. The remarkable, yet devastating images of the rapidly expanding ash plume were captured by the Japanese Himawari Satellite – an asset that has been used for many of Australia’s own natural disasters (such as the 2020 bushfires or previous floods).

This data, captured by Himawari, allowed Australian authorities to make effective and informed decisions in near-real-time, with an ‘eye-in-the-sky’ view of how each disaster unfolded. It is of the excellent relationship that exists between Japan and Australia that our international partners extended their assistance in trailing times, but it highlighted our reliance on the need for such assets in space, and the data these assets produce.

Experts say the risk can be mitigated by a stronger investment in a home-grown Earth observation satellite program, which would design, build, launch and operate the satellites and the sensors on-board used to collect a wide range of data types. The recommendation is included in a new national 10-year plan for Australian space science launched today by the Australian Academy of Science.  

“Meeting Australia’s future Earth Observation needs requires appropriate sovereign capability including enhanced science, observations, analysis and modelling capability,” says Professor Menk, who also Chairs the Academy’s National Committee for Space and Radio Science.

Protecting the Nation Against Space Weather Risks

Illustration of a space weather event, triggered by the Sun. Credit: ESA.

A developing trend amongst global space agencies is the recognition that whilst natural disasters can happen terrestrially, there is also a growing risk of extra-terrestrial factors that societies around the world are now planning on mitigating. Whilst asteroid impacts are extremely rare, space weather – generated by the Sun, is on the other end of the spectrum – extremely common.

Over the years and utilising many space-based observatories that keep a watchful eye on our local star, we have come to realise that during periods of high solar activity (such as when a high volume of coronal mass ejections or solar flares occur), the Earth can potentially be in the firing line.

Thankfully, our magnetic field takes the brunt of the hit, protecting us here on the surface – but our ever so critical satellites, which we rely on for transport, location services, agriculture, mining, and finances can be crippled. This could lead to a natural breakdown of functioning services (like public transport and financial market transactions), which have broader economic and societal impacts.

And whilst our magnetic field does give our biology adequate protection, our electric infrastructure (such as power grids) is still at risk when these events sweep past the Earth, charging up the atmosphere and inducing localised and global currents. Such an event occurred in Quebec (Canada) in 1989, when a powerful geomagnetic storm – caused by a coronal mass ejection – effectively caused a nine-hour outage of the city’s electricity transmission systems, plunging the city and its residents into a blackout.

Currently, Australia’s space weather services are managed out of the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, but the 10-year decadal plan states that our current capability we would only receive about one hours’ warning of a major space weather event that could impact our national power distribution grids, and disrupt global aviation, satellites, and radio communication.

“A major space weather event with catastrophic impacts on the global economy is likely within our lifetimes, however, Australian research can greatly improve our predictive capability,” said Professor Menk.

Many of the findings and recommendations listed in the Australia in Space report were recently echoed in a published report by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources, as well as many Australian and international studies on the development of our sovereign space industry capabilities.