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State Govt to campaign for national space agency

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The State Government will launch a campaign for the establishment of a national space agency headquartered in Canberra, but with its "operational" base in Adelaide.

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The Space Industry Association of Australia released a white paper last month which called for a national space agency to be formed to guide a national space program.

Defence Industries Minister Martin Hamilton-Smith last week gained Cabinet approval to lobby in favour of the proposal, with a view to South Australia hosting the “business, science and operational” elements of the agency’s work.

Hamilton-Smith told InDaily today that the Federal Government appeared to have little interest in a national space agency, and South Australia would even consider going it alone if Canberra wasn’t interested.

However, he said this would not be the best option for national space policy.

“We are going to argue for a space agency headquartered in Canberra, with the industrial, scientific and operational hub in Adelaide,” he said.

“If they (the Federal Government) do nothing, then we will advocate for it to be based in Adelaide.”

He said he was disappointed such an agency had not been established, given Australia’s past history as a player in the global industry.

The moment was right for policy leadership, given the opportunity afforded by the International Astronautical Conference to be held in Adelaide in September and expected to be attended by space agency chiefs, astronauts and big industrial companies.

The conference, billed as the world’s most important space meeting, is expected to attracted 4000 delegates, making it one of the largest conferences ever held in Adelaide.

“We need some leadership from Canberra – until we get that we can’t progress,” Hamilton-Smith said. “I am pushing federal ministers to pick up the ball and run with it.”

According to the State Government, Australia’s space industry accounts for less than one per cent of the global industry, worth more than US$323 billion.

The Space Industry Association says that Australia’s space industry produces annual revenue of $3-4 billion and this could be doubled within five years, if the Federal Government established a national space agency to guide the industry.

The association’s chair, Michael Davis, told InDaily that he was pleased the State Government had taken up the white paper’s key recommendation, and noted that Australia was rare among OECD nations in not having a dedicated space agency.

He said South Australia and the ACT had shown more interest than other states in the idea of an agency, and SA was well-placed to take advantage of any increase in investment in space-related research and development. Hamilton-Smith confirmed the Government had been in talks with the ACT about how the two governments could work together to realise the establishment of a space agency.

“Typically, the institutions engaged in that sort of thing are the universities and, interestingly, there’s the emergence of a start-up sector taking advantage of the dramatically reduced costs in development (and even launching) satellites,” Davis said.

“We see the role of government is not funding these projects, but rather funding the basic research and development that companies like this will need to realise their commercial plans.

“There’s no doubt that South Australia has always had capability and expertise and, most importantly, State Government interest and support for that type of activity.”

The State Government has picked the industry as one for potential growth, given the state’s established infrastructure at Woomera, and local R&D expertise in the field through the Edinburgh-based Defence, Science and Technology Group.

As reported by InDaily last year, Defence SA has produced a Space Strategic Plan with the aim of making South Australia a national hub for space-related research and development.

“In recent years the space economy has experienced exponential global growth… revenue from space-related activities in 2015 was about US$323 billion, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 9.52 per cent from 1998 to 2015,” the document states.

“This is more than three times the annual growth rate of world GDP.”

The blueprint – the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy, aka the ‘Space Strategic Plan’ – details the establishment of a “national hub of space industry, research and development” in South Australia, and identifies “the key direction, mission and actions needed to create a ‘space-enabled economy’ in SA”.

The State Government has also identified space industries as a potential area for cooperation with European countries, particularly France, through contacts being developed through the future submarines project.

Premier Jay Weatherill met with the head of the French Space Agency, Dr Jean-Yves Le Gall, last week.

Weatherill and Le Gall discussed space-related opportunities in areas such as water management, and the monitoring of bushfires and climate.

However, the space industry white paper says Australia has a reputational problem internationally, with most countries not viewing the nation as an active player in the field.

There was a widely-held perception that Australia’s general approach to space activities “is that of a passive consumer purchasing satellite data and using satellites from other nations while generating few resources ourselves”.

“This under-performance is not due to a lack of opportunities, nor a lack of demand,” the paper says.

“Given our large continent and small population, few countries are better suited to exploiting space technologies. Yet, despite world class space infrastructure such as the Woomera test range, deep space tracking stations and vibrant space science and technology communities linked to a broad base of users and consumers of these technologies, Australia is not fulfilling its potential in the global space economy and is vulnerable to sudden geo-political changes which threaten national security.”

A national agency, the paper argues, would address confusion among international space agencies and contractors “who are unsure as to who to contact within the Australian government”.

It wants the urgent appointment of an interim board of management for a space agency, which would oversee an international search for an agency head and organise the redeployment of Canberra bureaucrats to the agency.

InDaily has asked the federal Industry Minister Arthur Sinodinos for his response.

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