Investing in Australia’s Future Capabilities
In recognition of the current and future potential of space and spatial services to support the Australian economy and society, the government has made major infrastructure investments including the Positioning Australia Program and DEA. They have also established a national agency to drive industry growth and space coordination, the Australian Space Agency. These developments will position Australia well to harness the growing potential of space and spatial, including driven by the exponential rate of technological development.
The 2018-2019 Australian Government Budget allocated $225 million for better positioning systems for Australia. The Positioning Australia program, led by Geoscience Australia, will be delivered in partnership with New Zealand (Land Information New Zealand (LINZ)). The program is being delivered by: establishing a national network ground stations (multi-GNSS reference stations) that will track, verify and optimise data for precise positioning across Australia – known as the NPIC; and, a system to deliver corrected positioning signals directly via satellite technology through an Australian Satellite-Based Augmentation System (SBAS), which will overcome the current gaps in mobile and radio communications. SBAS augments and corrects GNSS signals to improve the accuracy of positioning data and makes it available across Australia and its maritime zones without the need for mobile phone or internet coverage. Current technology typically allows for positioning within 5-10 metre accuracy, but through the Positioning Australia program, accuracy will be improved to within three centimetres in areas with mobile phone coverage and ten centimetres everywhere else. This will deliver accurate, reliable and instantaneous positioning across Australia and its maritime zones.
The same Budget announced an ongoing investment of approximately $13 million a year to unlock the power of earth observation data for all Australians. The DEA Program translates over 30 years of satellite imagery into evidence of how Australia’s land, vegetation, and waterbodies have changed over time.
DEA provides Australian businesses and governments a snapshot of the entire Australian landscape every five days, providing detail about water availability, the development of regions and cities, and the productivity of our land. DEA provides Australian businesses with access to free and open satellite imagery, enabling the development of products that improve productivity and sustainability. DEA reduces up-front costs for businesses, allowing them to focus on innovation and value adding for their customers. DEA also enables the Australian Government to use satellite data to support decision-making in areas such as agricultural productivity, water availability, land use and management. For example, in 2019-20 DEA and the NSW Government collaborated to identify water seen over the past 30 years in almost 300,000 waterbodies across Australia, enabling government and industry alike to better understand trends and ultimately work towards their productivity and sustainability goals.
In 2019, Australia was ranked 15th globally in The Country Geospatial Readiness Index, rising from 17th place in 2017, and was recognised both as a regional leader in the Asia Pacific and as one of several “challengers” to established geospatial capability world leaders . Going forward, continued investment in Australia’s capabilities and taking fuller advantage of the space-spatial nexus by supporting this area to “scale up” its integration will see Australia’s international rank rise even further.
In Telecommunications the two main Australian operators are Optus, a publicly listed company traded on the Singapore Stock Exchange, and NBN, a Commonwealth Company, defined as a Government Business Enterprise under the PGPA Act.
NBN has invested ~$2bn in establishing their Long Term Satellite System (LTSS) network providing broadband internet to regional, rural and remote customers. The LTSS comprises two satellites (manufactured by Space Systems Loral in California), 10 “gateway” ground stations (supplied with satellite/terrestrial interface equipment by Viasat inc.) and two network management facilities. Spacecraft operations are conducted under contract by Optus from their Belrose facility.
As of January 2021, NBN supported about 109,000 satellite customers with NSW and QLD accounting for more than 50% of these customers. They indicate 438,000 premises are ready to connect.
Optus Satellites are the major commercial satellite service provider in Australia and since its initial operations as the Government owned Aussat in 1985 , has launched a total of 10 satellites. Five of these are still active including the Defence Payload System on the C1 satellite, D1, D2, D3 and Optus 10.
In July 2020, Optus announced its next generation of geo-stationary satellite would be based on the Airbus Defence and Space OneSat platform. This new class of satellite offers all electric propulsion and fully programmable communications payload offered a potential step-change in flexibility for future Australian satellite communications services. As an example, Optus disclosed its intention to use the Optus 11 satellite to “back-haul” mobile telephony black-spots improving coverage for rural customers. Airbus also announced the ability to add additional payloads, such as SBAS, on this satellite.
In 2020 the Department of Defence published its 2020 Defence Strategic Update & Force Structure Plan (over the 2020 – 2040 timeframe). The following list presents the lower published funding envelope for all planned primary space and spatial capabilities announced with the Defence Strategic Update 2020:
- Satellite Communications ($4,600m)
- Satellite Communications Assurance ($1,700m)
- Space Domain Awareness ($1,300m)
- Terrestrial Operation in Contested Space ($1,400m)
- Satellite Imagery Capability (access) ($400m)
- Sovereign Satellite Imagery Capability ($3,200m)
- Additional Sovereign Satellite Imagery Capability ($1,200m)
In addition to the increased funding allocation the space capabilities, Defence has also heavily invested in space and spatial research and innovation activities through the Defence Innovation Hub (DIH), the Next Generation Technologies Fund, the Sovereign Industrial Capability Priorities grants and Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group research. The total funding for announced Defence projects under these and other schemes is
~$50m including large scale activities such as the Buccaneer Main Mission satellite, novel sensor technologies for Space Domain Awareness, the establishment of the AGO Analytics Lab program and a range of space technology development projects.
The Office of National Intelligence (ONI) has also seeded space innovation activities through the National Intelligence Community Satellite (NICSat) program announced in May 2020 worth $4-6 million. Whilst not publicly announced by ONI, US media reported the launch of a Spire Global Lemur satellite named Djara in November 2020 as a partnership with ONI.
There have been a number of government programs from a range of agencies also announced in recent years aimed at supporting and driving research and innovation led industry growth. Collectively these programs support development and commercialisation of a range of space and spatial technologies with the aim of building a more globally competitive industry sector whilst simultaneously contributing to Australia’s economic, social and national security
The Australian Space Agency have announced an extensive range of programs aimed at supporting niche technologies and addressing infrastructure gaps across the space sector including:
- NASA Moon to Moon – $150m over five years
- International Space Investment Initiative – $15m over three year
- Space Infrastructure Fund – $19.5m for seven projects
- Mission Control Facility ($6m)
- Robotics, Automation and AI Command and Control ($4.5m)
- Space Payload Qualification facilities ($2.5m)
- Space Manufacturing Capability ($2m)
- Space Data Analysis facilities ($1.5m)
- Tracking Facility Upgrade ($1.2m)
- Pathway to launch ($0.9m)
- Australian Space Discovery Centre – $6m
The SmartSat CRC is deploying $235 million over seven years to 2026 comprising:
- $55m funding from the CRC Program
- $12m funding from the Defence Next Generation Technology Fund
- $33m Partner contributions
- $135m in-kind contributions
SmartSat CRC is developing an integrated and collaborative research program between industry academia and government research agencies focused on communications, earth observation and intelligent satellite with cross cutting program in Artificial Intelligence and Cyber Security and Resilience. The CRC aims to build an Australian sovereign space capability through world-class research and development in space systems, technology and solutions to enhance Australia’s economic prosperity and deliver national benefit. An example of the role SmartSat CRC aims to fulfil is the recent announcement by the SA Government that SmartSat CRC will work with them to deliver a hyperspectral imaging and communications satellite in partnership with local industry to provide benefit to all South Australians.
CSIRO launched the Space Technology Future Science Platform in November 2018 to generate new space- based innovations aimed at generating significant societal benefits for Australia. The program was extended by a year in 2020 bring the total funding up to $21m. Amongst many other initiatives, this program supported CSIRO’s partnership with Surrey Satellite to gain a 10% share of access to the NovaSAR S-band Synthetic Aperture RADAR (SAR) system worth more than $10m over seven years.