Astronauts on Mars? Australia might help put them there

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Sydney, Australia - , August 12, 2019 | comments

The US just celebrated 50 years since the first moon landing. You probably didn't know that Australia just celebrated the first anniversary of the opening of the Australian Space Agency.
Why would you? With a staff of just 30 or so, it was set up last year with a budget of $41 million over four years, plus another $19.5 million for an infrastructure fund.

This isn't only paltry when you measure it against NASA's $US21 billion. Even Canada invests a quarter-billion US dollars a year in space. India spends on space research every 10 days the entire four-year Australian space budget.

Is Australia having space fantasies again? The Hawke government's similarly paltry 1987 Australian Space Office came and went with no real results.

And the 2002 Australian research satellite FedSat is a long-forgotten piece of space junk. Its special nickel disc recording of Paul Kelly's From Little Things Big Things Grow will be remembered only if Rob Sitch decides to make another satire, along the lines of Utopia, on quixotic federal efforts, this time in space.

 

The head of the latest Australian attempt, Megan Clark, geologist and former CSIRO chief, says that the previous failures have actually paved the way to success. Come again? "Nobody wants it to fail again," she tells me. "I think the frustration has actually helped us get momentum. What's different this time is the public, industry, the research community have all got behind it."

And because its public funding is so tiny, it's forced to be an agency that focuses on private sector projects rather than its own: "Ours will be one of the most industry-focused agencies in the world," says Clark, who also sits on the boards of Rio Tinto and CSL Ltd.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Australia already has a small space-related industry worth about $3.9 billion annually and employing some 10,000 people. The federal government has tasked the new agency with trebling this to a 30,000-job sector over the next decade. The global space sector is projected to be turning over $US1 trillion by then.

Dreaming? Some of the members of the US congress and senate with oversight of NASA are in Australia at the moment, and they think not. "Australia's already been doing it in the long term," says Congressman Ed Perlmutter, a member of the US House committee on science, space and technology, going back to the role of Parkes in the broadcast of the first moon landing, immortalised in the move The Dish.

 

"But now you have the Australian Space Agency, you can start to take a lead on things," Perlmutter, a Democrat, says. For instance? "Your people can start to take lead investigator roles on some of the new satellite projects, or lead investigators on some of the Mars projects."

This is an idea that Clark proposed to Perlmutter and the other visiting members of the US congress on the sidelines of the annual Australian American Leadership Dialogue last weekend, and it's one they've taken up enthusiastically. Various Australian research outfits have worked with NASA for 50 years but no Australian has been given a lead investigator post, according to Clark. This would allow the Australian participant to take some control of the research and its findings.

"We are looking at the opportunity of getting astronauts onto Mars," Perlmutter tells me. "This is much bigger than any one country or any one person. I think it will take people like [US entrepreneur] Elon Musk and NASA and Australia and Japan to do this.

"There are a million scientific endeavours to be done - we will provide the services and you guys" – meaning Australia – "can take the lead" on some. "You don't have to do everything - leverage up your universities, you already have advantages in robotics, you're so good at the remote stuff."

 

Of the million possibilities, the agency intends to concentrate on a handful of areas of identified Australian advantage. One is location. Clark wants to create an Australian capacity for much more accurate GPS measurement. While general retail accuracy is to deliver a position within five to 10 metres, and world's best practice now is within 10 centimetres, "we want to get world's best to within 3 centimetres in out cities," Clark says. "We want to get accuracy down to less than the length of your thumb to help areas like farming, fishing, land management, bushfire surveillance, emergency services." Geoscience Australia is leading a project to use global GPS data and to create within it a proprietary Australian system with very fine accuracy.

Another is communication. "We are the country that invented Wi-Fi, but the next generation of communication will use not only radio signal but also light, and we want to be part of that." Similarly, Australian researchers are at the cutting edge of quantum communication research.

A third is robotics. Clark cites Woodside's existing underwater robots used for remote oil and gas pipeline maintenance, and Rio's automated Pilbara trains, trucks and drills, all operated from 1500 kilometres away in Perth. "We want to step it up to a whole new level," says Clark. "That's what we're going to have to do to go back to the moon and to Mars."

A fourth is managing space debris. One prospect is a Canberra company, EOS, working on a project to nudge space junk out of the way using lasers.

 

Another is spaceports. For the first time, NASA has contracted to a private company to conduct launches. In this case, it's give the start-up Equatorial Launch Australia the job of launching small research missiles from its Arnhem Space Centre next year. Clark calls it "a first step".

"The key thing," says Clark, "is that Australia already has the ideas, the entrepreneurship, and we want to bring it to its full capacity." Working with other countries' agencies, she describes it as "running through the legs of giants".

Undaunted by giants, by space, even by outer space, the Australian Space Agency now has its chance to explore Australia's full potential. If it can survive the near-space challenge known as Canberra, of course.

Content originally published by WA Today on August 12, 2019.
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Tags: Aerospace

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