Australia cannot afford to rely on foreign satellites, AAS warns

By Melissa Coade

Thursday January 20, 2022

Access to data from nationally-owned Earth-observation satellites will become critical. (Sasa Kadrijevic/Adobe)

Some of the country’s leading scientists have warned that access to data from nationally owned Earth-observation satellites will be critical for a future in which severe weather and emergency events are more frequent.

On Thursday, the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) shared its vision for local space science over the next decade. A key recommendation of the 10-year plan was that Australia take steps to build its own Earth-observation capacity, because future access to foreign data was uncertain. 

According to the AAS, having a national source of data for the monitoring and management of everyday activities like weather forecasting, water management and disaster response would secure essential work across Australia’s defence, government and industries. 

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Failing to invest in such domestic capacity poses a sovereign risk, the AAS says, noting the unfolding volcano and tsunami disaster in Tonga, which authorities have used earth-observation data to assess. 

Last week, NASA reported its satellite imagery showed it was ‘immediately apparent’ from data collected during and after the Tonga’s underwater eruption that the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha‘apai volcano erupted with ‘relatively powerful blasts’. 

The information has been a critical starting-point for the government of Tonga and its foreign allies to begin to understand the extent of the damage in the aftermath of the event. Efforts are now underway in Tonga to clear of ash the runway of its international airport that will allow planes carrying aid freight to land.

Stuart Phinn, geography professor and the director of UQ’s Remote Sensing Research Centre and Joint Remote Sensing Research program, said much of the post disaster assessment and recovery data in Tonga was derived from satellites. One simple example of how this affected Australian aviation was using the information and space sciences to monitor an ash cloud that developed from the eruption.

“You can’t get this information without having Earth-observation satellites in place,” Phinn said.

“Also, a week ago, up in Queensland, we had floods around the Mary River area. The actual prediction of those and the monitoring of their impact comes from Earth-observation technologies and capabilities, which combine a whole range of different things,” he added.

Emeritus professor of space physics at the University of Newcastle Fred Menk said investment was needed to lift Australia’s Earth-observation capability to an appropriate level. Over the next decade, he said, this would require a national program of space weather research to help protect Australia’s critical energy, water, information and transport infrastructure; and advance space weather forecasting and improve our situational awareness of space. 

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

“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.”

Professor Menk chaired the academy’s experts working group that developed the plan, which outlines other challenges the national research and development community faces in the development of a competitive Australian space industry. The plan offers three pillars for building in space science: discovery and exploration, growth and resilience, and health.

Overall, there was a lack of national strategy for space in Australia, Menk said, with no long-term plan for addressing knowledge and capability gaps, and a problematic ‘ad-hoc funding environment’.

The expert panel further observed the mismatch between the federal government’s recent investment in stimulating growth in the space industry sector and other necessary steps needed to develop a sustainable ‘space ecosystem’ in Australia. 

To fix this, the plan recommended more money for space science research and innovation capabilities – the same position taken by numerous Australian and international studies on development of space industry capabilities. A recent report published by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources also called for the same.

“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,” Menk said. 

“An internationally competitive space industry in Australia will depend on a foundation of excellence in science and technology.”

Beyond domestic and international applications for observational data, Menk said, enhancing Australia’s capabilities in space science could contribute to interplanetary science, space health, as well as track the ‘vastly growing’ number of space objects. Australia was uniquely positioned, he added, to lead research into the conditions needed to survive for a possible future where humans lived in outer space.

“If we’re going to have colonies on the moon, or on Mars in due course, we need to understand how to provide the health needs and the nutritional needs. Neither of these are capable of presently possible,” Menk said.

“We can lean upon the experience Australia has developed in working with people in isolated, confined extreme environments; for example, expeditioners on Antarctic bases, or for that matter, people living in remote communities in outback Australia.”

The knowledge gained in undertaking this so-called space health research could also be applied to a whole range of ordinary population health issues, he said. 

The ‘Australia in Space: a decadal plan for Australian space science 2021-2030’ report also recommends establishing space science as a national research priority and committing to and investing in an ongoing national space program. It also advises that a lead scientist in the AAS be appointed.

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