Megan Clark AC's plans for Australia in space

Friday, 01 May 2020


    Speaking from the 2020 Australian Governance Summit, Dr Megan Clark AC, head of the Australian Space Agency, says there are big plans over the next ten years to expand our presence in space.

    Whenever we look at technology and advancement, the thing we get wrong is that we’re still humans and we don’t change much. However, like all sectors the space sector is transforming.

    When I want to look to the future, I always talk to astronomers because they’re now our future. They’re already looking to throw away some 90 to 95 per cent of the data they collect because we simply can’t keep collecting and storing all of this information.

    What we need to do is be really intelligent about the way we throw away 95 per cent, and figure out the bit we want to keep. If as kids we kept every experience — everything we saw from the minute we woke up until we went to sleep — in our heads, they would explode. So what we use is selective memory. Our brain does this every single day of our life.

    Commercial interests

    Once the realm of government, space is now dominated by commercial players. SpaceX with its Falcon rockets and NASA with Boeing’s Space Launch System (SLS) are developing super-heavy launch vehicles to carry payloads of more than 100 tonnes. SpaceX is developing the Dragon crew and service module; Boeing the Orion spacecraft for NASA missions to the moon and Mars. Airbus is developing the propulsion system for the European Service Module of the Orion spacecraft. With 33 engines, it has serious capacity.

    In 2019, 16 per cent of all launches were commercial launches. Space is now highly contested, congested and increasingly commercial. The best example is the industrialisation of the low Earth orbit (LEO) — this will change how we communicate data and connect to the internet on Earth, but also brings risks. LEO is the orbit belt where most of the constellations will be launched — some 20,000 in the next decade.

    In late January, three companies planning to launch constellations in low Earth orbit were approved by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to be added to the Radiocommunications (Foreign Space Objects) Determination that governs which satellite companies can operate over Australian territory.

    Data and AI are essential

    Space will transform the way we communicate and we will have access to data rates 500 times those promised for 5G. If you think you’re swamped with data now, by 2030 your biggest concern will be how to throw away 90 per cent of the data you’ve collected and you’ll need to use AI to decide which data to collect. We’re already doing that now with satellite data.

    Space is also critical to defence and national security and is increasingly a realm of cyber warfare. The US has formed the US Space Force, while Russia and India also have space military capability. Iran recently attempted [in February] to launch a Zafar satellite able to photograph oil fields [from space] and its space program runs directly under the nation’s defence ministry.

    Other countries are responding, recognising the need to protect existing national space assets, maintain space situational awareness and coordinate with allied organisations. In late January, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confirmed the launch of the Space Domain Mission Unit to respond to the threats to his nation’s space assets.

    By 2030, boards will operate in an increasingly contested global arena that will include issues of cybersecurity, surveillance and geopolitical threats.

    Space shuttle at night

    Back to the moon

    NASA plans to have the first woman and the next man on the moon before 2025 — and to set up permanent habitation on the moon as a test to going to Mars after 2030. To be able to go beyond our moon to live on another planet, we must be able to fund and sustain missions of greater distance and duration. We have to use the resources at our destinations, overcome radiation, isolation, low gravity and extreme environments like never before.

    In 2024, the Artemis III program will transport a crew of astronauts — including the first woman to land on the moon — into lunar orbit. The Orion spacecraft will dock with a Gateway already in lunar orbit. The astronauts will then transfer to the descent/ascent module to travel to the moon’s surface. Astronauts will search for the moon’s water and use it, study the moon, learn how to live and work on the surface of another celestial body and test the technologies we will need for missions to Mars.

    As we move off our planet and try to survive in the hostile realms of space — searching for water, the air we breathe, safety from radiation — and return safely to Earth, let’s hope we look back and value our air, water, biodiversity and life on Earth even more.

    What’s overhead

    In late January, three companies planning to operate constellations in low Earth orbit above Australian airspace were approved by the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Kepler Communications (Canada) is developing low-cost connectivity solutions for remote assets from a 140-satellite network into low Earth orbit. Swarm Technologies (US) is planning 150 very small satellites for Internet of Things (IoT) services. Elon Musk’s SpaceX Services has begun deploying its multibillion-dollar 12,000-satellite Starlink network to beam high-speed internet around the world. Australian companies Myriota and Fleet are offering IoT services through plans for a growing LEO constellation.

    Values are still critical

    We set the purpose of the Australian Space Agency (ASA) to transform and grow a globally respected Australian space industry that lifts the broader economy and inspires and improves the lives of Australians — underpinned by strong national and international engagement. It is the most commercially focused purpose of any agency in the world.

    Our values are needed to establish Australia as a responsible global citizen — safe on Earth and in space; to showcase Australia’s can-do attitude and build a diverse, globally competitive team that could run through the legs of giants. As a newcomer, we needed to build trust by doing what we said we would do — every day — and be curious to learn more and do cool things.

    Our values are embedded in our charter. They thread through our strategy and everything we do. We test everything we do against our purpose and values. Nothing would make me happier than to know that in 60 years’ time, ASA had never lost a life pursuing our ambitions in space.

    I feel the same about the importance of values and culture at Rio Tinto and CSL. This importance will remain at the heart of our corporations and weave through our strategy. When things get difficult, there is no rulebook, no AI will help — only experience and values [will help you] make the right decisions.

    The increase in space activities has highlighted the need to ensure the safety, stability and sustainability of the outer space environment. The UN space treaties, regulation that encourages safety, participation and innovation, and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) are useful forums.

    A key responsibility of the ASA is to provide a regulatory framework that is both consistent with our international civil space obligations and appropriate for Australia; that balances being responsible and safe in space with supporting innovation and speed to market.

    This is the same with being responsible to our patients at CSL, with an unwavering commitment to quality and safety. Every step in our processes is overseen by regulatory processes such as the FDA. Audit and assurance of this is covered at our sites, external assurance by site audits by the regulators and oversight by the board.

    Similarly, at Rio Tinto our business is inextricably connected to the responsibility to our people, the communities in which we operate and to global issues such as climate change and human rights.

    Regulatory regimes will remain important to balance these responsibilities while encouraging innovation and keeping up with technology changes.

    Dr Megan Clark AC FAICD is head of the Australian Space Agency, director of Rio Tinto, CSL and CARE Australia and advisory board member of the Bank of America Merrill Lynch. This is an edited extract of her address to the 2020 AGS.

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