Saturday, April 27, 2013

Retiring the Space Boomerang Blog

Dear Blogosphere,

I've decided to hang up my blogging boots.

I have enjoyed writing about the Australian Space Industry over the last three and a half years, but life has got in the way of blogging, and with the recent release of the Australian Space Policy, it is a good time for me to wind things up.

I originally started this blog to stay in touch with the industry while I was working overseas. I also realised that there was a lack of social commentary about the Australian Space Industry, that didn't involve people who just wanted Australia to land an astronaut on the moon. In the mean time, the Australian Space Industry has come forward in leaps and bounds, and there is now a strong, and growing community, supported by Australia's first true space policy.

Some interesting facts about this Blog:
  1. It has had around 45,000 hits over its time, and gets around 2,000 a month at the moment.
  2. The most popular blog post, was this one on Australia's Space Needs: Bushfire Detection and Mapping. Surprisingly, it was three times greater in hits than any other post I've written!
  3. During the blog I've had the pleasure of being contacted my countless numbers of people within the Space Industry in Australia, as well as a number of people from overseas.
  4. When I started the blog back in February 2010, the Australian Space Research Program was just kicking off, and an Australian Space Policy was the start of a work in progress. Both are now completed, and very successful. 
  5. The countries where I received the most hits from (in order) were - the United States, Australia, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Ukraine, Canada, Slovenia and India.
For those of you who have contacted me, commented to me, tweeted with me, or just shown a keen interest in what I've had to say, I thank you. 

For those who still want to contact me, I'll be keeping the address open for a while. I'll also keep the blog live as a record of Australian Space activities over these years.

Thanks for stopping by and reading Space Boomerang, and I hope that you've learnt as much as I have over these years.

Space Boomerang

Monday, April 8, 2013

Australian Satellite Utilisation Policy Analysis and Thoughts

Assistant Industry and Innovation Minister Kate Lundy today released Australia’s long awaited Satellite Utilisation Policy today at Mount Stromlo. In essence it is Australia’s first Space Policy, and one that has been under consultation and development for many years now. It can be found on the Australian Government Space website here, or direct download link here.

The opening line probably summarises the document best ‘Australia aims to achieve on-going, cost-effective access to the space capabilities on which the nation relies now and in the future’. This is what we need as the bare minimum from our space policy. It is also clear from the outset, that the document wants to head off any speculation that we’re about to send Aussie’s to the moon, by focussing more on Satellites and satellite utilisation – ‘Australia’s Satellite Utilisation Policy does not commit Australia to human spaceflight, domestic launch capabilities or to the exploration of other planets.’ It also commences with a strong case as to why Australia needs a space policy, helps justify the clear need for an Australian space policy.

The policy identifies the overall goal for the Australian Space Policy as:

Achieve on-going, cost-effective access to the space capabilities on which we rely.

And follows up with five major benefits that will flow to Australia by achieving this goal, including:

  • Improved Productivity: space capabilities such as satellite imagery and high accuracy positioning deliver information that brings about greater efficiencies and encourages innovation.
  • Better Environmental Management: satellite information enables effective environmental management across Australia’s extensive and often inaccessible land and ocean territory.
  • A Safe and Secure Australia: space capabilities are important contributors to national security, law enforcement and to the safety of all Australians in disasters.
  • A Smarter Workforce: space capabilities help transform existing industries and build new ones that provide quality jobs.
  • Equity of Access to Information and Services: satellite communications enable high-speed, universal access to TV broadcasting, internet and telephone services.

The policy then examines how it will achieve each of the seven principles that were previously released by the government, providing a much more comprehensive definition on what the government will do to achieve each of the principles.

The document concludes by providing some description of how the organisation or space responsibility will be achieved under the new policy.

Overall, I am delighted with the policy document, and the government should be commended for its extensive consultation process with all industry stakeholders over the past few years. The document has taken a constructive and positive approach to the Australian space sector, whilst remaining measured and conservative in what it is trying to achieve, which I believe will ultimately contribute to its sustainability, community support and overall success.  

There are several specific points of the policy that I am very pleased to see:

  • The document forms its basis around the economic benefits to Australia from space – ‘Over four billion dollars of GDP is derived from space capabilities.’ I believe this approach lends credibility and weight to the policy, and improves the justification of the policy to the Australian public.
  •  Principle 4 – Contribute to a Stable Space environment – which will allow the Department of Foreign Affairs to ramp up Australia’s diplomatic efforts in protecting the space environment for all to use, but also in negotiating international agreements surrounding space.
  • Several mentions about the education, skills and capability needs of the industry, and identification of how these can and should be improved
  • Linkages between defence and civilian space – should be kept separate at government level, but due to size of Australia, both defence and civilian space need to be supported by a single and coherent Australian space community.
  • Specific identification of our priority allies and partners, as well as a desire to increase cooperation with countries in our region – ‘Relationships with key allies and partners including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, Japan and the European Union are a priority. Consistent with the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, Australia will increase its engagement with regional neighbours with expanding capabilities that may complement Australia’s space capabilities.’ It will certainly be interesting to see what follows with each of the nations mentioned.
  • The strong statements related to the increase of Australian defence space capabilities, which mirror other public defence strategy positions. I will be keeping a close eye on the next defence white paper to see if there are any new space capabilities announced. I also like the idea of the establishment of the ‘Space Community of Interest’ within defence to bring together ‘interested parties from industry, academia and government together to explore vulnerabilities, including interdependencies between space-related infrastructure and critical infrastructure, and to develop options to mitigate risk.’ This will help leverage the skills and expertise beyond those within the defence department themselves.
  •  Clear responsibility split between civil and defence space in Australia, whilst encouraging the broader community to link together to support both sides

There are a couple of areas that are not in the policy that could be improved over time:

  • The lack of industry growth targets. Notably, the UK space policy includes an export growth target of 10% of the global market by 2030. Australia lacks any concrete targets to work towards, perhaps not so focussed on the export side of things, but more related to growing the industry in Australia as a whole. This is something that I would like to see in future worked into our space policy.
  •  Australia has headed down the ‘cross-agency coordination office’ path, which was very similar to what the UK did with its space policy originally. More recently, the UK has moved to a dedicated Space Agency model. In the short term, I believe that the ‘cross-agency coordination office’ path is  also the best policy for Australia to adopt, and it was prudent to take this approach at this time. It will help bring together and coordinate the disparate functions of the government. I do however believe that longer term a stand-alone agency represents the best solution for Australia, to bring all of the space capability within a single organisation inside government.
  • My first impression was that the Space Policy Unit (SPU) was no-longer going to exist, given the policy is now developed, and there is no funding in the future estimates for the SPU. However the policy identifies that the SPU within the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education ‘will be the chair and secretariat of the SCC’. I can only presume that somehow a small level of funding will be included in the upcoming budget for the SPU to continue in some form.
  • In the media release surrounding the Policy announcement today Senator Lundy announced “from 1 July 2013, a new Space Coordination Office in the Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education would be responsible for coordinating Australia’s domestic civilian space activities and showcasing that excellence.” Which is unusual, as the Policy document itself doesn’t specifically refer to the Space Coordination Office, nor is it represented on the figure 1 diagram showing how the various committees interrelate.
  • The Policy announcement has not been in conjunction with any new funding initiatives such as an extension of the highly successful Australian Space Research Program, or even identification of funding for the government departments that will be in charge of implementing the new policy. My guess is we will have to wait and see what is in the upcoming budget on May 14th 2013.

Finally, let me congratulate all of those involved in the development of the policy. The smart and dedicated people at the Space Policy Unit in Canberra have brought together a comprehensive Space policy document since they were founded on the 1st of July 2009, which was built essentially from a clean sheet of paper.

Make no mistake; the space policy is an enormous and monumental step for the Australian Space Industry, and one that we have needed for several decades.

It is however, just the beginning of Australia’s rising space journey. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Australia facing a gap in weather satellites?

Recently, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has placed ‘Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data’  on their high risk list of government programs that are most in need of transformation.

In particular, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has identified that there is a ‘substantial risk of a gap in polar satellite data in the afternoon orbit, between the time that the current polar satellite is expected to reach the end of its life and the time when the next satellite is expected to be in orbit and operational. This gap could span from 17 to 53 months or more, depending on how long the current satellite lasts and any delays in launching or operating the new one.

The polar satellites, together with their Geostationary counterparts, are ‘critical to weather forecasters, climatologists, and the military to map and monitor changes in weather, climate, the oceans, and the environment.’ The result of any gap would be reduced accuracy weather forecast, in particular surrounding extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges and floods. The follow on effects would be to ‘place lives, property and our nation’s (United States) critical infrastructure in danger’. Interestingly, Polar satellites provided 84 percent of the data used in the main American computer model tracking Hurricane Sandy, showing just how critical they are.

What does this have to do with Australia I hear you asking?

Well, currently the Australian Bureau of Meteorology receives the data from the NOAA Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite (POES) Series of Satellites – precisely the satellites that have the predicted gap in service.  A gap which is now on the U.S. GAO high risk list.

That means that Australia is likely to face exactly the same gap in data services, as we have long been a free-rider of the U.S. Satellite data. This data is also now integral to the accuracy of Australian weather forecasting. This means that Australia also faces reduced accuracy forecasts, particularly for extreme events, such as cyclones and floods, which Australia has been copping more than its fair share of recently. In particular, the Polar Satellites are critical to map the path of a cyclone – will it go out to sea, or will it make landfall? As in the U.S., reduced forecasting for Australia would also place lives, property and critical infrastructure at risk. You can imagine what an extra 24 or 48 hours’ notice does for the safety of lives and property when you have a category 5 cyclone making landfall.

So, where can Australia go from here?

We can hope that the existing satellites out-last their intended design lives, and hope that the U.S. can launch the follow on satellites, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) as early as possible. The U.S. also has launched the Suomi satellite, originally a technology demonstrator for the JPSS project, which is now being used operationally, and will help cover some of the gap if the technology survives.

Alternatively we can rely on other data sources – ESA in particular has a vast array of polar weather data that we may be able to source, however there would be costs in transitioning over to the new data, and we’d be equally reliant on Europe as we have been with the U.S.

In the U.S. a private company called PlanetIQ  is proposing to launch a 12-satellite constellation into Low Earth Orbit, to provide critical weather data. It is of course, expecting the U.S. government to pay for the service, so Australia would probably have to pay for the service itself if the U.S. government went down this path.

The issue facing Australia is one that has been warned about within the Australian space industry for a number of years. When we rely on foreign nations for our critical space needs, we have no ability to influence these programs, which, whilst being very cost effective, leaves us at the mercy of other nations and their decisions.

Australia should use this gap to take another look at our space needs, our space policy, and examine if Australia could play a modest, but effective part in securing our critical space needs. I'm certainly not suggesting that Australia goes it alone on its own weather satellites, however a small contribution to our partners such as the U.S., Japan, Europe and China may help secure their projects, and in turn, our data. We could even tie our contribution to a small amount of Australian work share, meaning any investment we make, would flow to Australian industry and jobs. Perhaps we could step up and build a small payload or instrument, focussing on one or two niche capabilities.

It is a classic example of where Australia needs to take back control of our space needs that are critical to our nation.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Australasia Satellite Forum 2013 to be held on 8th of April 2013

The Australasia Satellite Forum 2013 will be held on Monday the 8th of April 2013, in Sydney. The event is known as one of the more premier events in the Australian Space Industry - particularly for telecommunications satellite issues.

Last year's forum was sold out, so if you are interested, head here for more information.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

SingTel may sell Optus Satellite division

SingTel has hired both Morgan Stanley and Credit Swiss to review the potential for selling the Optus Satellite division. The Oputs Satellite division currently operates five satellites in orbit, and has one Satellite, Optus 10 under construction.

Speculation has started to form around APT Satellite from Hong Kong and EutelSat from Paris, however due to the defence contract on the Optus C1 satellite, a chinese connected buyer (APT is partly owned by ChinaSat) may raise some eyebrows in Canberra and complicate a potential deal.

Valuations are speculated to be in the $1B to $2B range, with the potential that if SingTel cannot find a buyer, an IPO might be another option. It is not clear how the NBNCo Satellite plans may have affected the future direction for the Optus Satellites division, however it will no doubt be in the back of the mind of any potential buyers.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Biarri Cubesat Project - Australia’s next Satellite contribution?

The Biarri Cubesat project, is a four nation project involving Australia, the US, the UK and Canada. In Australia, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) is working closely with BAE Systems, ACSER at the University of NSW, the Australian National University and Electro Optic Systems (EOS).

The project will see three, 3-Unit Cubesats launched by the United States in 2014, and involves precision flying experiments, which will also be tracked by EOS in Australia using their laser tracking system.

As part of the project, the US is providing the launch facilities and satellite bus, the UK is providing the communications links, Canada is providing the ground station infrastructure and Australia is providing the space-qualified L1-only GPS receiver, which BAE Systems has already qualified in its testing facilities. The FPGA based GPS receivers are designed to measure the precise relative positions of the Cubesats in their low earth orbit.

DSTO’s Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Division (ISRD) is leading the charge from the government front, with BAE Systems from Edinburgh Parks in South Australia leading on the industry side.

The Biarri project will use the Colony II Cubesat bus, which is a US NRO program, with Boeing currently building the satellite bus. No doubt through the Biarri project, DSTO will gain some very good insight into designing, developing, launching and operating a satellite, which bodes well for their future capabilities in small satellites.

DSTO is also apparently also working on another, higher Australian content Satellite called Bucaneer – together with BAE Systems. It will feature a Space Based Miniaturised High Frequency radar payload, and is likely to have a US supplied spacecraft bus.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

2013 Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program Wrap-up

The 2013 Southern Hemisphere Summer Space Program (SH-SSP) was recently held in Adelaide, Australia at the University of South Australia in partnership with the International Space University.

Once again, the program was well attended by 37 students from 11 countries, and features a live-in program for Professionals, Graduates and Senior Undergraduates. The program, modelled on the ISU’s Summer Space Program focusses on the interdisciplinary and intercultural aspects of space education.

Public Lectures 

As part of the SH-SSP, there is always a set of public lectures. This year saw 4 separate lectures including:

  • Friday 11 January - International Astronaut Event, which included Astronauts Dr Andy Thomas of Australia, Dr Soyeon Yi of South Korea, and Mr Paolo Nespoli of Italy. 
  • Thursday 17 January - Satellite Remote Sensing – the Benefits for Society, discussing the latest policy developments and technical capabilities of earth observation satellites from an expert panel that included Dr Kimberley Clayfield of CSIRO, and Mr Anthony Wicht of the Space Policy Unit, Department of Innovation, Canberra. 
  • Monday 21 January - Using Satellites to overcome the Digital Divide – included Australian Satellite companies Newsat, Optus and NBNCo 
  • Thursday 31 January - Showcasing the Australian Space Research Program, including the Australian National University, Vipac, Flinders University and the Institute for Telecommunications Research at UniSA. 

The 2013 Public Lectures can be found online here.

White Paper 

As part of the SH-SSP, the students prepare a white paper, which was this year titled ‘Common Horizons’, and can be found on the website here.

The 2013 ‘Common Horizons’ white paper examined the connection between sustainability on Earth, outer space activities, and sustainability of the space environment.

As with all SH-SSP activities, the white paper focusses on examples and case studies from the ‘Global South’, or those countries at or below the Tropic of Cancer, which covers most of the world’s developing nations, together with very few of the global space super powers.

 The White Paper has a good examination of Earth Sustainability, followed by a look at the issues surrounding sustainability of the space environment that we operate in. In particular, there is some good information surrounding Space Debris and the radio spectrum, two of the key issues facing the space industry at this time. On page 25 there is also ‘A day on earth without space’, which poses an interesting example of how a normal day would be very different, if access to space and satellite technology were to disappear. It concludes with a chapter examining the ‘Earth Space Relationship’, and how the sustainability of both is highly interrelated.

The White Paper Recommendations are highly relevant to the Australian space domain:

  • Recommendation 1: Increase involvement in international organizations focused on space sustainability 
  • Recommendation 2: Raise Public Awareness of Space Sustainability 
  • Recommendation 3 – Establish a Global South Space and Earth Sustainability Prize Foundation 

Congratulations to all students involved in the White Paper – I have no doubt that we will be discussing Space sustainability a lot more in the future, and the students who have been involved in writing the paper will be at the forefront of the discussion, so that by the time they are space industry leaders, we will all still have sustainable access to space.