Space explained

Space is almost universally considered to be the region surrounding the earth and beyond where atmospheric friction has little or no impact on the motion of objects. The Karman Line, an imaginary boundary located 100km above the mean sea level of earth, is commonly known as the beginning of space.

Orbital space is the region of most interest to this work and comprises a number of bands where satellites can be injected and are subject to the physical laws of orbital motion as first described by Kepler. The motion of satellites in orbital space are largely determined by the gravitational forces generated by the mass of the earth.

Humans also exploit space through short duration sub-orbital missions, whereby the platform does not generate sufficient velocity to escape Earth gravity and enter orbit, and deep space missions where spacecraft enter deep space beyond earth orbit.

As an operating environment, space is challenging and risky. Engineered systems that function in space must contend with near zero vacuums, high energy radiation, extremes in temperature variations and be built to withstand the violence of launch, extreme accelerations, vibration, acoustic loads and atmospheric loads. Whilst reliability has vastly improved in the previous decades, for both spacecraft manufacturing and launch vehicle performance, there is still high risk of complete mission failure during launch and space operations. This drives up the cost of manufacture and makes launch expensive. Insurance and financing can also be challenging and drive the cost of delivery of a space system.

Finally, as a “global commons”, space attracts heavy regulatory attention through international bodies such as the UN and national regulators such as the Australian Space Agency and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

The space sector comprises organisations with specialist skills, facilities and infrastructure that support conceptualising, designing, building, deploying and operating space objects. There is a large, complex and interconnected value chain that enables and supports the space sector. Given the nature of required skills, many organisations that service the space sector, also operate in other sectors, most notably the aircraft industry. The coupling of these two industries is so tight it is often referred to as the aerospace sector.

Spatial explained

Spatial science, and the industry it supports, is at its core about positioning and location. Traditionally it has been represented by cartography and surveying. Over the last century, photogrammetry, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing through earth observation and PNT, through GNSS and RNSS, have come to characterise what is commonly known today as ‘spatial’.

Spatial data gives the location of something, usually defined by coordinates, like the location of a road, or through the identification of area with a place name, together with some understanding of what is happening there (i.e. the characteristics of the object, event, or phenomena concerned, such as the size of an earthquake or the number of children living in a suburb), and often how it changes through time (e.g. the position of a moving vehicle or the spread of an infectious disease). Spatial data gives us a more complete picture of our ever-changing world so that we can better understand and manage it. Examples include; satellite positioning, earth observation and digital mapping of the features around us.

Spatial embraces both the collection of information related to position and location and its analysis to produce information products that include metric information about position. These information products span the production of simple analogue or digital maps to highly complex derivative products in 3D, time stamped to render them in 4D and value added with many other data sources to take them into the nth dimension. In fact with continuous streaming of data from sources like geostationary satellites, the data is real-time and persistent.

Spatial information products are now ubiquitously used by society; Google Maps, Bing and Open Street Map. Most industries use spatial technologies; agriculture to monitor crops and plan the transport logistics for harvest to market; mining for exploration and robotics in autonomous mining; banking and finance for GNSS atomic clock based timing for transactions; health for analysing population demographics; water industry through the use of digital elevation models to aid in catchment management. These are just a small fraction of the uses to which spatial is being put.

The Power of Space and Spatial

Spatial data and space services are ubiquitous to our modern and digitally connected lives. The power of where, enabled through space and spatial, is the record of what we do, when and where we do it, and in what environment—because everything happens somewhere. Nations can use location to connect data and workflows for government, industry, researchers and the community to make decisions that improve the economic, environmental and social outcomes for Australia.

“By taking location information and applying geospatial capabilities to analyse and visualise the content, government policy and service delivery can become more relevant, targeted and efficient, both during emergencies and in business as usual.” (Geoscience Australia)

Over the past couple of years, Australia has been subjected to a series of disasters that have had wide ranging impacts across the nation, including the Queensland floods, the national drought, the national bushfire crisis and COVID-19. A critical aspect in supporting response and recovery has been understanding the geographic extent of these disasters, the nature of the community and businesses affected, and the social, physical and environmental infrastructure and assets impacted. Space technologies play a vital role in collecting data and information (through PNT and through remote sensing by earth observation), disseminating existing and new data and information (through tele-communications).

Location provides a unifying factor for much of the data that is available, as well as a powerful tool to understand and communicate the data, information and stories the data contains. By taking location information and applying geospatial capabilities to analyse and visualise the content, government policy and service delivery can become more relevant, targeted and efficient, both during emergencies and in business as usual, and industry can function and grow.

Various studies into the space and spatial sector highlight the significant and growing contribution to local, national, regional and global economies, now and into the future.

Benefits of an integrated view

Australia’s space industry, although small, has well recognised world class expertise in certain areas from which we can build. By contrast, Australia’s spatial community is much more dominant by world standards but still exhibits strong growth potential. Operating in tandem, these competitive advantages serve as strong basis from which both industries can grow.

Space and spatial are making an increasingly critical contribution to digital transformation. Global spending on the digital transformation is expected to reach $2.3 trillion by 2023, a five year compound annual growth rate of 17.1% for the period 2019 – 2023. The space industry has been estimated to be worth US$350 billion in 2019 with potential to grow to over $US1.1 trillion by 2040. The Australian space sector was estimated to be around $3.9 billion in size in 2019 and forecast to grow at 7.1% pa over the five years to 2024.

The total direct economic benefits from the use and application of earth observation from space data alone was found to be worth A$496 million to the Australian economy in 2015, and predicted to reach A$1,694 million by 2025. In 2016, geospatial services were conservatively estimated to generate US$400 billion per year globally. However, the total economic contribution was predicted to be several times higher, through approximately US$550 billion derived from consumer benefits; the creation of approximately 4 million direct and 8 million indirect jobs; and improvements of revenues and costs of sectors that contribute 75% of global GDP.

A coordinated, strategic approach to integration of Australia’s space and spatial sectors could:

  • increase productivity in key Australian sectors including agriculture (food, fibre and carbon), mining, aviation, intelligent transport, construction and energy through improved coordination between the end users and technology/data providers developing solution-based products and services.
  • support the delivery of public good services including defence, national security, disaster response, emergency management, environmental monitoring, urban planning, sustainable cities and digital twins to name a few.
  • grow the domestic space-spatial industry so that it achieves an international competitive advantage in high value-add areas including:
    • advanced instrumentation; advanced geospatial;
    • location intelligence services; and
    • telecommunications.
  • accelerate the maturation of the Australian space industry, by leveraging off the successes of the Australian Space Agency, SmartSat CRC, Frontier SI, DEA and the NPIC, amongst other programs.
  • better align academic programs with industry needs, including by producing industry-ready graduates who meet the skills demand.
  • increase Australian participation in the global space industry.
  • increase the commercialisation and utilisation of research in the space-spatial sectors.
    increase surety of access of vital information supply chains
  • establish the nexus of an enduring space-spatial integration in Australia.
  • address the challenges and opportunities presented by open data, open technology and the introduction of the NBN.
  • reduce duplication and increase efficiency in the delivery of state and government geospatial services.

The Space – Spatial Value Chain

In recent years, and as technical capabilities evolve and improve, both the Australian space and spatial sectors have become more diverse in terms of users, more complex in terms of stakeholders and responsibilities, and more holistic in the way space and spatial data is used and managed.

Today, each sector alone delivers a substantial benefit to support a wide range of Australian interests. However, there is a huge opportunity from the integration of space capabilities into spatial services to provide new, previously unimaginable capabilities. As these capabilities mature they will, in turn, generate new requirements for the space sector to meet.


Figure 4: The Space-Spatial feedback loop

This diagram shows the synergistic relationship between space and spatial capabilities, highlighting how integration leads to benefits that would not be realised through each sector operating in isolation.

Space and spatial technologies frequently form integral components of the same supply and value chains. One example highlighting the positive impact of the space and spatial sectors on each other is how the advancements in high resolution satellite imagery led to the development of a new method of coastal mapping to support hydrographic charting. In 2007 the Worldview-1 satellite launched by Digital Globe Ltd, heralded a new era of high- resolution optical imagery for the sector. However, while Worldview-1 provided new capabilities to many sectors, the coastal mapping and bathymetric mapping communities found their applications did not benefit greatly from the greater resolution and new spectral bands. The spatial user community, specifically hydrographers, fed this feedback into the space sector engineering teams for this satellite series who were then able to be incorporate a new coastal mapping band into the next satellite WorldView-2 launched in 2009. This band then allowed for a new standard of shallow water bathymetry mapping that opened up a new field previously thought to be impossible from satellites – using satellite imagery for shallow water hydrographic charting.

The opportunities presented through increased integration of space and spatial sectors is gaining increased recognition internationally. Reflecting this, the 2019 Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Ministerial Summit was held in tandem with the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management Asia Pacific (UN-GGIM AP), the Asia Oceania Intergovernmental Group on Earth Observations (AOGEO) and the Asia Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF). This co-hosting approach of all the major regional-level space and spatial organisations highlights opportunities not just for collaboration between the sectors but also delivery of joint infrastructure between the sectors.


Figure 5: Venn diagram of Space and Spatial Sectors.

Space provides a vantage point to collect and deliver “ubiquitous data”. Space underpins the availability of spatial applications “everywhere”. Spatial applications demonstrate the value of space capabilities.

Focus areas for national benefit

Economic Development

Accelerating Growth of Australian Space and Spatial Businesses


The COVID-19 global pandemic has brought into sharp relief the importance of high growth industries in helping rebuild the national economy, stimulating creation of new jobs and supporting business development. Space and spatial are critical sunrise industries in the digital world that offer great potential for Australia.
From a nascent ecosystem just three years ago Australia now has a thriving ecosystem of start-ups and hundreds of SMEs in both the space and spatial industries, however very few have grown to become billion-dollar multi-nationals. It is important that we understand the barriers to this growth and consider appropriate corporate incentives without resorting to inefficient subsidies.


Governments, and particularly Defence Departments, are playing a key role around the world in fostering vibrant and large national space and spatial sectors. A coordinated national approach for defence and the civilian sectors would see investments made in companies as part of a strategic design that seeks to optimise an enduring space and spatial ecosystem with a vibrant private sector at its core.


Enhanced decision-making through Critical Spatial Data and Systems


Australia possesses many significant spatial data stores within government agencies and research organisations (eg GA’s DEA, the National Computational Infrastructure, jurisdictional agency systems, and NCRIS facilities to name a few) which have been created fit for a specific purpose. These have been or are in the process of being migrated to cloud environments, mostly owned and operated by multi-national private sector providers, some of which are located offshore. It is timely to examine the risks to these national spatial data stores, their infrastructure, systems and analytics, including the physical location of the systems on-shore and off-shore.


Consideration could be given to redefining and expanding the existing list of Foundation Spatial Data Framework (FSDF) themes and the systems that support their creation and use. This data needs to be optimised for the three and four dimensional needs of a future sensor and information world powered by artificial intelligence. Another key task could be to map the needs of sectors and organisations that service Australia’s critical infrastructure and systems of national significance (as defined by the Department of Home Affairs) against what the FSDF can provide in its current and in future forms.

Spatial digital twins are an advanced spatially accurate digital representation of the real world and are emerging as a powerful tool to help people improve their understanding of our physical environment and make better-informed decisions. The use of digital twins should lead to improved outcomes and benefits, build predictive capability, and offer just-in-time analytics and products. Digital twins vastly improve the value of data through aggregation and shared access, leading to better decision making. Spatial digital twins are an essential component of the overall digital transformation agenda across government and industry and are advancing rapidly. It is essential that Australia collaborate with the local and global initiatives to develop the use of this technology. These organisations include Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), International Standards Organisation (ISO), the US based Digital Twin Consortium and The Smart Cities Council. The Australia and New Zealand chapter of The Smart Cities Council is stewarding the development of a Digital Twin Strategy for Australia and New Zealand. Their goal is to create the conditions for a thriving digital twin marketplace in the region. OGC is working closely with ISO on standards development with active working groups. The Digital Twin Consortium even though still in its formational stage, has, given its membership, the potential to have a powerful influence on the way forward.


Trusted, Precise Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS)


To capitalise on the rapidly growing demands for Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) systems which are accessible, accurate and available for all Australian sectors, a major challenge will be developing an indigenous capability that provides assured access to PNT across the nation by improving its resilience, robustness, precision and trustworthiness over the long-term. Australia is ready to update its current GNSS Strategic Plan for Promoting Enhanced PNT Capabilities. The update could consider setting out strategic and industry-aligned incentive mechanisms to facilitate development of high-tech GNSS-related products, services and workforce by local companies and organisations, and making these new PNT capabilities available across the nation. In Australia, leadership of this strategy development will require disciplined coordination across government, Defence, industry and education.

NATIONAL SECURITY: Establishing Critical National Space and Spatial Systems

Australia has a small space industry and relies heavily on the goodwill and cooperation of the world’s space-faring nations for access to vital space-based assets, products and services. For Australia to take its place as a modern space nation capable of managing its own space needs, rapid and very substantial growth in our space industry is required.


Australia’s capacity to design and manufacture critical elements of space systems is increasing but from a much lower base than many countries with equivalent economies. Key issues for growth include the level of desired sovereign capability and the balance of sourcing from domestic markets and international markets, the right size for Australia’s space manufacturing and testing capability and answering the question of how to sustain this capability in a globally competitive and often distorted market. Other countries use offsets to ‘protect’ national capabilities, but Australia moved away from that policy some time ago.


The ability to connect space services and spatial information products with end-users is vital to the growth of the Australian space and spatial sectors. Without sufficient spectrum and the capacity to downlink large amounts of data, many of the emerging growth areas in the space and spatial domain will be constrained. The challenges of accommodating more satellite systems within existing spectrum allocations as well as finding spectrum for the increasing amounts of data to be downlinked is driving significant development activity. Australia has world class capability in ground infrastructure and has opportunities as a location for ground networks for high volume data downlinks. There are a number of activities that Australia could undertake. They include Australia playing an active role in international fora to preserve key spectrum for space and spatial activities including in higher spectrum bands and for optical links. An information campaign could raise awareness across all government agencies of the critical strategic importance of satellite spectrum for the space and spatial industry and how erosion of satellite spectrum will reduce the availability of space and spatial services; exploring all opportunities for Australia to provide high speed data downlink sites for space and spatial data particularly for high data downlinks from Asian, European and American satellites. The Australian development of waveforms and spectrum sharing techniques could be encouraged and supported as well as on-board processing techniques to optimise the downlinking of essential data. Focusing research on emerging technologies such as Australian development of optical communications capabilities and infrastructure as well as exploration of higher Radio Frequency bands to reduce interference and increase capacity of satellite communications could create global market opportunities for Australian industry.


Finally, Australia’s growing security dependence on space and the increasing vulnerability of national security space capabilities has created the need to rethink the scope and scale of Defence space capabilities. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update states the intent for sovereign space capabilities in both satellite communication and satellite imaging capabilities and the recognition of space as a military operating domain. This increased focus on space capabilities, with a corresponding increase in future funding, for our national security creates new opportunities for Australian industry to develop and deliver space-based capabilities to government, both directly and in partnership with international allies.

Social/environmental wellbeing

Optimising the Workforce: STEM and Diversity

There is a significant opportunity for the space and spatial industries to work more closely with Australia’s strong educational and vocational training systems. The need to attract, train and retain people with advanced Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills to support long-term and sustainable growth across the sector has been identified by many reviews. A key task will be to review and extend the current analysis of the skills gap being undertaken by the Australian Space Agency and SmartSat CRC to ensure that it identifies both space and spatial skills that are not adequately meeting these industry’s current and future needs.


For the space and spatial sectors to be able to sustainably grow, innovate and deliver leading and useful research in the coming years, a diverse and inclusive workforce will be needed. It is proposed that the Space, Surveying and Spatial Diversity Leadership Network (SSS-DLN) continue to leverage, amplify and expand existing successful D&I initiatives and actions plans at sector level and that peak bodies take a leadership role in advancing efforts to improve the diversity of our sector. A key outcome should be to benchmark, monitor and report on the state of D&I in the sector on a regular basis. Best practice outcomes from this network can be applied more broadly across the space and spatial sectors.


At the Commonwealth Government level, the Thodey report into the Australian Public Service pointed to the need for urgent improvements so that Australia can leverage the full potential of digital systems and data analytics facilitated by suitably skilled people. This observation is particularly prescient for space and spatial. One option is the development and implementation of a space and spatial awareness program for the public services operating at all layers of government. This program could be aimed at enhanced understanding of policy, technological and regulatory implications of space and spatial systems and services across Australia’s society and economy as a formal part of the implementation of the Thodey review. Case studies of existing best practice would inform the awareness program.


Essential Systems for Climate Resilience

Increasing bushfires, floods and other natural and human-induced disasters are sharpening the focus on the responsibilities of Federal and State Governments to improve coordination and response to larger scale natural disasters. This has come under close scrutiny in recent years. The 2019-20 fire season has brought this issue to the fore. Many inquiries, especially the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, have examined these issues from a national and regional perspective.


The current paradigm for earth observation systems supporting broader economic and environmental objectives involves data collection to monitor ecological/environment systems with data analysis informing decision makers on actions that may deliver certain outcomes. Moving to a management-focused approach requires access to a wider range of data with better data governance, coupled with advanced analytics/machine learning techniques and greater use of spatial digital twins. The key is to develop phenomena-specific systems purposely designed to respond to societal, environmental and economic pressures to produce the highly valuable information products that end users need, rather than just creating more low value data.


Ongoing and cross-agency collaboration across industry and governments is key to improving spatial information capability and datasets to inform decision-making across the environment portfolios of governments. In addition, next generation data governance and clearly defining accountability for data collection, storage, management and integration across agencies could provide a systematic approach to ensure high quality data capture to empower analytic methods including artificial intelligence and machine learning. It is important that end users of spatial technology are regularly informed of megatrends in spatial technologies so current information and understanding can be applied to their land and environmental monitoring, management and decision-making processes and diminish the barriers to adopting new technologies for sustainable environment management.