Australian National University eyes role in new space agency

Funding for organisation expected to be confirmed in federal budget

May 3, 2018
Brian Schmidt, ANU, Nobel

The Australian National University has harnessed the firepower of its vice-chancellor, Nobel-prizewinning astronomer Brian Schmidt, to stake a claim in the country’s rebooted space industry.

Professor Schmidt said that ANU was poised to play a key role in supporting a new national space agency, reportedly to be bankrolled by A$50 million (£28 million) of seed funding in the federal budget, which will be announced on 8 May.

The government announced its intention to establish a domestic space agency during an international astronautical congress in Adelaide last September. Australia had a world-leading space industry in the 1950s but allowed it to languish – a fact that irks the country’s scientists, particularly after New Zealand launched its own space agency in 2016.

Leaked media reports suggest that the agency will be headed, for the first year at least, by Megan Clark, the former head of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. While a government spokeswoman would not confirm the leaks, academics are treating the funding as a fait accompli.

Professor Schmidt said that ANU already hosted key national space resources and had “vast capacity” to support the new agency with its expertise in science, law and policy.

“As the nation’s university, we look forward to playing a leading role in [the agency’s] establishment,” he said. “We have long supported efforts to bring a national focus to space and have worked alongside industry and business partners for many years. We look forward to bringing our extensive cross-disciplinary capability to support the agency.”

Last year, the government appointed Dr Clark to head a review of Australia’s space industry capability. Her panel handed its report to the government in February, but the document is yet to be released publicly.

Panel member Anna Moore, who directs ANU’s Advanced Instrumentation Technology Centre, said that the budget allocation would be enough to launch the new agency, establish international partners and help to seed new space businesses.

“Many institutions and businesses are getting their strategy right for how they can jump in here,” she told Times Higher Education. “The ANU certainly has been doing that.”

ANU hosts national space test facilities at Mount Stromlo near Canberra and Siding Spring in northern New South Wales. Its researchers are collaborating with Nasa, the European Space Agency, Japan’s agency Jaxa and other astronautical powerhouses on projects including Mars exploration, gravitational wave detection and monitoring Earth’s groundwater and ice cover.

Advocates say that space research will have spin-offs in related fields including 3D printing, electronics, cameras and lasers. Last May, the first Australian-built research satellites in 15 years – constructed by a consortium of universities, including many students – were released from the International Space Station.

Professor Moore said that a space agency would be “pivotal” in fostering this sort of activity. “The problem with trying to do that at an institutional level is there’s no front door to the communications, the legal side of it, the finance side of it, the international partnerships. We need that agency to elevate everything we’re doing and multiply it by several factors.”

She said that Australia had about 0.8 per cent of the global space industry, which was already worth $400 billion (£294 billion) a year and growing exponentially. “We should be at least at 1.8 per cent, because that’s where we are in GDP.”

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