By Hamish HastieWA Works subscriptions

Western Australia could soon be propelled into the upper echelons of the booming global space industry if the State Space Agency of Ukraine (SSAU) has its way.

A concept proposal from SSAU to the WA Government, obtained exclusively by WA Works, details land or sea-based rocket launch facilities in the state’s north near Derby.

Although still in its infancy, the proposal comes at a fortuitous time for WA when space industry opportunities are on the radar of all levels of government. This follows an announcement at the International Astronautical Congress in South Australia in September that Australia will establish a national space agency.

To direct the framework of the new agency the Commonwealth is conducting a capability review of Australia’s $4 billion space industry, which employs 10,000 people.

The review, a space strategy and a charter for the agency is expected to be completed by March. Every state is clambering to get on board, which is why interest from a major space power like SSAU is timely and important for WA’s credibility as a space state.

Until recently Ukraine was launching spacecraft from a huge marine platform through multinational service Sea Launch. However, in 2010 Russia took majority ownership of the facility. And, after Russian military intervention in Ukraine in 2014, the former Soviet bloc country started looking at other options, including Australia and Indonesia.

The SSAU proposal, first floated with the former Barnett Government in 2016, calls for a collaborative partnership between Australia and Ukraine.

It offers two options, one land-based in the Kimberley near Derby and the other a sea platform located at a northern Australian port.

The Australasian Ukrainian Space Industries (AUSI) Spaceport could become a multi-user facility in partnership with the Ukrainian space industry supply chain. While no location has been identified, SSAU says somewhere like Curtin RAAF airbase near Derby would be ideal.

“It is envisaged that Ukraine and the spaceport partnership would negotiate the supply and assembly of rockets, expertise and mission control in partnership with Australian and regional suppliers in order to deliver space launch and satellite services to commercial customers,” SSAU says.

Alternatively, a sea-based launch platform option could be created utilising local oil and gas expertise in WA.

SSAU argues that an Australasian-based consortium would be viable, with current space launch capacity dominated by Russia, the US and France.

“Australia provides excellent territorial advantage for such a facility and is economically and politically secure. It has a suitable education base and is held in high regard by its regional neighbours.”

The proposal suggests siting a floating platform at Darwin but SSAU WA Representative Consultant Mary Jardine Clarke says Derby port is also being considered. Clarke, who has been in talks with various stakeholders on the potential Derby location, says ultimately both land and sea options could be pursued as demand grows.

Ambassador of Ukraine in Australia Mykola Kulinich welcomed news of an Australian space agency and confirmed his country was very keen to establish cooperation in the area as they have recently done with the Canadian Space Agency.

He says Australia’s stable political climate, good economy and interest in technology and innovation make it an ideal partner in space.

Currently SSAU are waiting to hear back from the Federal and State Governments and hope to get a spaceport feasibility study underway in 2018.

Pollies get behind space

The Ukrainian proposal has support from WA Senator Linda Reynolds who has been spruiking WA’s space capabilities in the face of the capability review and new agency.

The biggest competition for is coming from a strong collaborative effort between South Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT but Reynolds says WA is ideally positioned to house the new agency.

She says WA’s university expertise would be invaluable and, in her joint review submission with opposition leader Mike Nahan, she proposes that a facility like NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) be established in Perth.

Reynolds led a delegation of the state’s brightest space minds to Canberra to prosecute the case to Federal Ministers.

One of those was Curtin University Professor Phil Bland who runs the Fireballs in the Sky meteorite tracking program. He says a national agency could have untold benefits for the broader Australian space industry.

“There’s a lot we can do here and pull together under one roof – build something not exactly like JPL, not on that scale, but with that kind of thing in mind,” Bland says.

“If a university develops the technology to do megabytes per second transfers from a cube satellite that’s huge. You can sell that IP and companies are going to make an absolute fortune because that works on every single cube satellite that everyone flies.

“That’s the logic of how space agencies can operate to energise the space industries.”

Reynolds wants WA to shoot for the stars and argues, beyond rocket launches, there is plenty of expertise that would be transferable to other emerging space industries.

“We need to show the Federal Government what we have and could leverage off in terms of existing space communications facilities,” she says.

“We also need to show them how we can leverage off technology that’s being developed in the agriculture, mining, defence, oil and gas sectors. We lead the world in remote operations in very harsh environments.

“All of that is actually directly transferrable to space exploration, satellite tech and those sorts of industries.”

She says WA also already has great experience in space research, operations, applications like data analytics and ancillary services like cyber security and finance. 

The State Government is also backing the space agency push and Science Minister Dave Kelly says WA can build on existing relationships with global space agencies such as NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Japan’s national space agency.

Space Industry Association of Australia Chair Michael Davis says the new space agency will play an important coordination role for the industry.

“Space activities that have anything to do with designing, launching and building satellites requires heavy government involvement, but even more importantly it requires national coordination,” he says.

Show us what you’ve got

When WA is mentioned the first thing that comes to mind is huge iron ore mines cutting into the Pilbara’s vast red landscape or a gas plant looking out over the Indian ocean.

However, space has been stitched into the state’s fabric for more than half a century.

In the 1960s NASA had tracking stations, launch pads and command facilities at Muchea and Carnarvon.

While a rocket hasn’t been launched from WA in decades, we’re still home to some of the most important space infrastructure in the world.

The ESA’s deep-space ground station is nestled in the granite hills near the historic New Norcia township. The 35-metre antennae is one of only three across the globe and is vital to ESA’s efforts in space.

It is constantly communicating with space probes and was pivotal to the success of the Rosetta mission where the ESA successfully landed a module on a comet in 2014.

ESA Head of the Ground Facilities Infrastructure Yves Doat says the organisation has enjoyed strong relations with the Federal Government and is excited about the prospect of an Australian space agency.

ESA is looking to build a second antennae in New Norcia from 2020 and for the first time ever it has opened operations at the site to Australian companies.

“When ESA is placing a contract by our internal rule we can normally only ever place a contract with the European industry,” he says.

“We managed to convince the European governments to open the tendering process to Australian companies and we’re now in the middle of that process.

“We know Australian companies are interested and we hope to get offers from them offering Australian staff to be employed on the site.”

One of the state’s biggest space projects is the $3.3b Square Kilometre Array radio telescope – of which $1b will be spent in Australia – is set to begin construction in 2019. The project is being shared across Australia and South Africa and will be the most sensitive radio telescope ever built.

The Australian portion of the SKA is being built in the Murchison Radio Observatory (MRO), four hours by road east of Geraldton. It will join existing radio telescopes, the $50 million Murchison Widefield Array, and the $160 million ASKAP telescope. Also, the Pawsey supercomputer in Bentley is one of the most powerful in the southern hemisphere and handles the huge swathes of data sent from the MRO.

Commercial space operations already exist as well. Satellite ground stations include the Optus station in Lockridge and NBN Co stations in Kalgoorlie and Geraldton.

WA also has radar stations in Exmouth and Laverton, with the latter soon to be home to the US Army’s Space Surveillance Telescope.

The Australian Defence Force’s Australian Satellite Communications Station near Geraldton is also maturing, anchoring its access to the US Wideband Global SATCOM system.

WA companies are already utilising technology that can be used in space.

Woodside recently entered a partnership with NASA and took delivery of its ‘robonaut’ to help it remotely fix issues in extreme environments on its oil and gas platforms.

There are only three robonauts in existence including Woodside’s. One resides in Michigan while the other is currently aboard the International Space Station. 

First published in the Summer 2017 edition of WA Works.

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