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Australia's Growing Space Agency Amid a Renewed Push to the Stars

24 Apr 2024
By Ching Wei Sooi
Norcia station, DSA-1 (Deep Space Antenna-1), hosts a 35 m-diameter parabolic antenna and is located 140 km north of Perth, Western Australia. Source: Tamsin Slater /

According to a recent survey, the Australian public lacks awareness of global space activities and domestic space endeavours. So, what is Australia is up to in space?

Australia has adopted a “whole of government” approach to outer space, beginning to collate what was once fragmented into a more coherent national strategy. This likely reflects the recognition that the opportunities and challenges presented by space are too important — both commercially and strategically — to be dealt with by any one government department alone.

It perhaps also reflects a need to collectively raise awareness of the importance of space. Although the global depth, pace and scale of space activities continues to increase year by year, only a quarter of Australians surveyed in 2023 said they were knowledgeable of global space events and, in general, they are not aware of what Australia actually does in space, or why.

Space Benefits, Everyday

Like many people on Earth, Australians rely on space every single day and are indeed dependent on space. Space enables position, navigation, and timing systems used for telecommunications, GPS, financial transactions, international banking, and shipping.

Australia’s industries are embedded with, and benefit from, space technologies. Earth observation data is used by the mining industry for resource exploration, mapping and utilisation, and can help aid agriculture through tracking drought conditions, monitoring crop and soil health, and in observing the weather.

Space also saves lives. Bushfire monitoring and response, as well as emergency management for other natural hazards, such as floods and severe weather, use satellite imagery. Future generations may benefit from space as well. Space-derived data provides information on the health of Australia’s ecosystems, including the Great Barrier Reef, and is integral to climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience.

Crucially, space has national security implications. Modern militaries cannot operate without space technologies, capabilities, and data. Moving beyond the domestic, Australia works with Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, the UK, and the US under Combined Space Operations, a multilateral space security partnership.

Multilateral Space Diplomacy

Australia has a long history of engagement in the multilateral space fora, continuing to this day. One of only 15 states party to all five United Nations (UN) space treaties, Australia is a founding member of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and a permanent member of the Conference on Disarmament (CD), which is the single multilateral disarmament negotiating forum. The CD works on various agenda items, including the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS).

These two bodies, COPUOS and the CD, reflect how space related discussions are generally bifurcated at the multilateral level. Issues on space safety, such as peaceful uses, fall to COPUOS. Space security issues such as PAROS fall to the UN’s disarmament machinery which includes the CD and other bodies such as the First Committee. (However, some issues such as space debris are more difficult to silo as such.)

In pursuit of PAROS, Australia supports approaches that regulate not just space capabilities, but also how capabilities are used (i.e., behaviours in space). Australia has made a political commitment not to conduct destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing and has participated actively in a 2022 UN Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules, and Principles of Responsible Behaviour.

Another approach to PAROS looks to regulate space capabilities, for instance, by banning weapons in space through a new space treaty. The 2023 UN Group of Governmental Experts on PAROS was set up to further that discussion, and Australia’s nominated experts have actively participated in the work of the Group.

In the years to come, there will be two new OEWGs: one for each approach. Australia’s active participation in both is to be expected.

Australia is also a signatory to the Artemis Accords. Signatories commit to, inter alia, peaceful space activities and reaffirm some international space treaties. Notably, the Accords holds that the extraction and utilisation of space resources do not contravene the Outer Space Treaty.

Enhancing Australia’s Efforts in Space

The global space economy surpassed USD$600 billion in 2023 and could be worth USD$1.8 trillion by 2035. As for Australia, the Australian space sector saw a A$4.5 billion turnover in 2021. Although a program to develop Australian satellites has been discontinued, the Albanese government announced a A$200 million commitment to join an Earth observation satellite program led by the US. Additionally, Australia’s space industry has A$2 billion in planned capital investments and there has been a commitment under the former Morrison government to invest A$7 billion over the next decade in the Defence Department’s space capabilities.

A space industry requires skilled personnel, and research hubs have been set up across the country. Examples include the Australian National University’s Institute for Space, the University of Western Australia’s International Space Centre, and the Australian Centre for Space Governance. Australian academics are prominent across fields as diverse as space law and space archaeology, as well as in the hard sciences. This is a solid foundation upon which to encourage and inspire more students from across all disciplines to turn their attention towards space. Additional government support for higher education would go a long way, and cross-linkages with international space organisations should continue to be pursued, for instance, with the European Space Agency.

An opportunity is also presented by Australia’s geographic location. The Southern Hemisphere has a relative lack of facilities and systems that cover space, such as telescopes, radar, and satellite dishes. This makes Australia ideal for ground stations to track space objects and downlink with satellite platforms. Partners, such as the US, are already interested.

Overall, while Australia’s existing efforts are welcome, more is needed. Space safety, security, and sustainability must be further factored into national priorities and how they could impact the everyday lives of Australian citizens. This necessitates deft action from the Australian government.

The Australian Space Agency (ASA) manages civil space policy and activity, while space security is overseen by Australia’s Defence Space Command (DSpC). Working together as well as with other government agencies, both the ASA and DSpC have respective space strategies, which is a good start. However, chair of the Australian Centre for Space Governance, Dr Cassandra Steer, has identified the crucial need for an overarching national space policy.

Australia also has a responsibility to consider what constitutes ethical space use and exploration. There are important questions over cultural heritage in space: the protection of culturally significant sites and traditions beyond Earth. Australia’s First Nations People are said to be the world’s first astronomers — look no further than up at the Emu in the Sky.

Relatedly, the long-term sustainability of the space environment is increasingly salient. Space sustainability is commonly understood as the continuation of our ability to use and benefit from space, including the equitable access to space, which is of key interest for developing spacepowers such as Southeast Asian states, as well as for middle powers such as Japan. This is a prime diplomatic lever which Australia could use to develop and deepen its bi- and multilateral relationships, especially considering Australian advocacy for space sustainability. Towards a similar end, Australia could work with regional neighbours on capacity-building across remote sensing and space applications.

The challenges and opportunities provided by space are all-encompassing, not the least for achieving domestic priorities and in navigating an increasingly complex geopolitical climate. Australia cannot afford look away from the stars.

Ching Wei Sooi is a Graduate Professional in the Space Security and WMD Programs at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). The views expressed in the publication are the sole responsibility of the individual author. They do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the United Nations, UNIDIR, its staff members or sponsors.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.