The Australian Academy of Science reckons we are too reliant on data from foreign-owned satellites in weather forecasting, resource and water management, and even disaster management.

It’s a fair point – the recent crazy footage video of the Tonga volcano erupting was captured by US and Japanese satellites.

And there’s no guarantee that this data will always be available with growing environmental, commercial, and geopolitical stresses, the AAS says.

But the risk could be mitigated by a stronger investment in an Aussie-grown Earth observation satellite program, which would design, build, launch and operate the satellites and the sensors on-board used to collect a wide range of data types.

And the AAS sure doesn’t pull its punches, with that being just one of nine recommendations from its new national 10-year plan for Australian space science, which calls for R&D investment, a plan to address the workforce skills gap, ad-hoc funding environment, as well as a long-term national strategy for space to address knowledge and capability gaps.

Sovereign capability is the key

Alarmingly, based on our current capability we would only receive about one hours’ warning of a major space weather event that could impact our national power distribution grids, and disrupt global aviation, satellites, and radio communication.

“A major space weather event with catastrophic impacts on the global economy is likely within our lifetimes, however, Australian research can greatly improve our predictive capability,” said Emeritus Professor Fred Menk, chair of the executive working group that developed the plan.

“Meeting Australia’s future earth observation needs requires appropriate sovereign capability including enhanced science, observations, analysis and modelling capability.”

You can definitely see the benefits of home-grown space data, when NASA is churning out pics like this one:

While Professor Menk says the Australian Government’s recent investments in space are stimulating growth of the space industry sector, the space science research and innovation capabilities necessary to develop a sustainable national space ecosystem have not been similarly enabled.

“Australia must have a space industry of its own – one that we can turn into a high-tech manufacturing, knowledge-based, research supported, export industry in a world hungry for it,” he said.

Space is pricey but the benefits are endless

Right now, Australia assumes responsibility for geophysical monitoring over one-seventh of the world’s surface, with assets operated by various organisations including the ADF, the Bureau, CSIRO and the MWA/SKA consortium, industry groups and university groups.

And the funding environment is kinda ad hoc.

The overall Australian Government investment in space in 2019 was 0.003% of GDP21, compared with Canada at 0.016% and South Korea at 0.03%.

But the economic multiplier effects of space programs are clear, the UK Space Agency investments in space science and innovation yield ₤3-4 in direct value to the space industry and additional spill over impacts of ₤6-12 for every ₤1 of public expenditure.

By spill over we mean job creation, revenue generation, productivity improvements, lives saved and improved.

Even just reducing the detection time of bushfires by 30 minutes could result in an economic benefit of around $3 billion over 30 years – rising to more than $8 billion if all fires are detected within 30 minutes.

But how much money would be needed to kick off home-grown R&D?

The AAS suggests a mission R&D program of $40 million over four years would build and validate a range of science payloads and spacecraft systems enabling modular mission design.

This would be followed by a four-year $80 million mission program which would see multiple Australian spacecraft exploring the solar system by 2030.

Pic: This is where we currently sit in the global space and planetary science race, measured by H-index9. Source: Australian Academy of Science.


Who are the players in the satellite space?

There are a couple of stocks on the ASX who have exposure to the satellite sector, including Xtek Limited (ASX:XTE) who’ve been working with private firm Skyraft to design a small satellite launch stack, and Kleos Space (ASX:KSS) whose satellites collect radio frequency data – and looks set to launch its Kleos Patrol Mission (KSF2) satellites on the SpaceX Transporter-4 mission scheduled for April 2022.

Then there’s Electro Optic Systems (ASX:EOS) who have a satellite in orbit that uses its laser sensor technology to track space debris and facilitate communications.

CEO communications systems Glen Tindall said the AAS report is just one of several studies in recent years indicating that Australia’s economy is heavily dependent on Earth observation satellite technology.

“It’s a technology which is quite within reach of our industrial capabilities, with the standing up of the Space Agency and the emergence of some medium sized firms including EOS,” he said.

“We believe that we’re really at an inflection point in terms of moving Australia from a pure consumer of space services to really being able to deliver this type of capability indigenously.”

Not here to compete with SpaceX

Tindall said the company’s customers are mostly government, so they’re not about competing with the big boys.

“We’re a commercial organisation, but in almost every case, our customer base is government or government oriented – we were not going out there to compete with Elon Musk and build the cheapest rockets ever, or build a home internet service for consumers,” he said.

“We’re always looking for applications which are relevant towards government activities, whether they’re in the military sphere or intelligence sphere, or whether they’re in climate science and geoscience and we think we can reach those very well.

“And the good thing about those is government is interested in having a very robust and capable system, so we’re not stuck with the problem of having to compete at massive scale.”

From a space consumer to a space exporter

“Three years ago, we stood up a space agency, and the first few years were really about setting up international agreements and frameworks for cooperation, now the rubber has to hit the road, we actually have to do something – otherwise, we’ll just remain a consumer space services,” Tindall said.

“When we look at the Australian space sector at the moment, it’s sort of a cottage industry.

“There’s a whole bunch of start-ups doing amazing, clever little things, but they’re not of the scale that they could pull together a major program like this.

“And EOS is one of the few companies of that scale that would be able to take on such a challenge – we think we can link national interest to the industry to create a win-win.”

The company’s Spacelink satellite program will be a constellation of satellites providing connectivity between Earth observation satellites and back to the ground – and they’re under construction with the plan to be active in 2024.

“Although Spacelink is a wholly owned Australian business, we actually anticipate almost all of the revenue will come from overseas, probably more than 90%,” Tindall said.

“Space represents an export industry for Australia, and this aligns with EOS – we’re 90% exports, always have been – so we’re not necessarily just confined to the Australian market.

“If we had an Earth observation satellite, that’s, for example, measuring soil moisture or water quality, those sort of services and measurements are of great interest to many other nations as well, so we’d be in the position of being able to generate data, which is useful for overseas customers.”