How should Australia participate in space exploration?

Australia played a central role in space exploration in the early years of the Space Age. Some argue there has been a lull since then – until recently, Australia did not have its own space agency. Australia created a space agency in 2018, though, signaling a reenergized engagement with space exploration. We spoke to David Flannery, an Australian astrobiologist working with NASA and Australian institutions, to learn more about Australia’s potential role in space exploration.

What are some important highlights in terms of Australia’s history in space exploration?

Many Australians would be surprised to know that Australia was at the forefront of space exploration at the dawn of the Space Age. The Woomera test range, situated in a remote part of the South Australian desert, was established in cooperation with the UK in 1947. It remains the world’s largest rocket test facility. The first Australian-built sounding rocket, Long Tom, was launched from Woomera in 1957. Sputnik reached orbit the same year, which resulted in an acceleration of programs at Woomera.

In the following decades, Australia was one of the 18 founding members of the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. It chaired numerous UN committees and forums relating to the use of space. Also during this time, Australia became the third nation to build and launch a satellite to orbit from within its national borders (following the Soviet Union and the United States). This satellite was WRESAT, built by the University of Adelaide and the Weapons Research Establishment. It was launched in 1967 using components left over from a joint US-UK-Australia rocketry research program at Woomera. The launch vehicle consisted of a Redstone first stage, an Antares-2 second stage, and a BE-3 third stage.

Sadly, WRESAT was both the first and last satellite launched from Australia by Australia. Significant Australian investment in space exploration has been in freefall ever since. This is despite the fact that facilities exist in Australia that are funded by overseas partners for signals intelligence collection and deep space exploration. These facilities include tracking stations that supported NASA’s Apollo, Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager programs.

Federal governments have been wary of supporting space exploration, which is at risk of being seen as a waste of money by a population that has often expressed little interest in advancing science projects that lack clear and immediate benefits. Interestingly, the minimal interest in space activities contrasts strongly with the comparatively huge investments that Australian governments have made in sport and international sporting competitions. 

The result of decades of negligible investment manifests today as an alarming lack of capability in key areas of space technology. Perhaps the most obvious shortcoming is Australia’s inability to construct or launch satellites. Incredibly, prior to the opening of the Australian Space Agency in 2018, Australia was the only member of the OECD that did not have a national space agency. Many Australians remain skeptical that the nation will make significant contributions to space exploration. This is partly due to the near-complete absence of national accomplishments in this area in living memory. Another issue has been the sustained boom in resource extraction, which many Australians view as having dampened investment in the knowledge and tech economy.

That said, it’s important to recognize the expertise specific Australian research groups were able to maintain and expand during these lean times, which could be reenergized by a new space program coordinated by the embryonic Australian Space Agency. For example, historically, Australia has punched well above its weight in the fields of astronomy and remote sensing. Numerous indigenous communications and research satellites have been launched by international partners. The local rocket launch industry has suffered countless false starts and setbacks, but it is now experiencing a new wave of investment, particularly with regard to smaller launch vehicles. Australia also has a strong university system that supports research groups that are focused on nearly every aspect of space science. However, in order to work on active flight projects, many Australian academics spend time overseas at international space agencies.

What are valuable ways that Australia can continue contributing to space exploration?

Australia can continue existing relationships with international partners where Australia provides communications relay and spacecraft tracking services. If managed well, the Australian Space Agency will build on existing projects to stimulate the development of new capabilities. This could open the door for more Australian involvement in space exploration. There is much pent up demand from Australians in industry and academia who wish to participate on the international stage. Australia has fostered knowledge in several areas that are relevant to space exploration. The nation could make a solid contribution to some of the largest, cutting-edge missions involving international partnerships.

One example is the return of samples from Mars, which is arguably the next grand technical and scientific challenge in space exploration. Some of these samples will be older than any surviving rocks on Earth. They will provide a new lens through which humanity can view the evolution of our own planet. It is hoped that returned samples might also provide a definitive answer to the question of whether a second genesis of life ever occurred elsewhere within our Solar System. Such knowledge would determine whether we are likely to encounter extra-terrestrial life. 

NASA, ESA, and CNSA (the Chinese Space Agency) have plans for a series of missions that aim to culminate in a Mars sample return at some point in the next decade or two. NASA’s next flagship mission, the Mars 2020 rover, will be the first mission in that series. It will drill and cache samples selected by onboard rock chemistry instruments, including one that is led by two Australian scientists working at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Abby Allwood and myself).

Australia can help answer these kinds of questions, given our expertise in mining geology and remote sensing – not to mention our track record exploring the world’s oldest evidence for life, which is remarkably well preserved on our continent.

Today, several Australians are involved in planning for and interpreting the results of missions to various bodies in the solar system. NASA’s upcoming Mars 2020 mission will carry contributions from smaller economies, including Norway, Denmark, and Italy. The same can be said for missions led by Australia’s other international partners, including the European Union and China. Now that we have a space agency, Australians have an opportunity to build upon our experience to directly contribute hardware, software, and science expertise to future missions to Mars and elsewhere.

What advice do you have for Australians who would like to join the space sector?

There is a lot of room for the sector to expand, but it might pay to investigate the state of affairs overseas rather than starting where we left off fifty-odd years ago. The satellite construction and launch capability that we have lost is just one of many areas of the space sector that are now being expanded by mid- and small-sized economies. Deep space is my personal interest and is arguably the next grand challenge in exploration.

Owing to the multi-decade drought in investment in space technology, many Australians would benefit from spending time overseas. There, they can work with established industries and international space agencies. They could then return home to apply what they have learned. This is equally true for industry and academia.