Frances Adamson: space diplomacy is now ‘core business’ for Australia

By Frances Adamson

Friday October 12, 2018

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson has given several speeches of late, most recently a diplomatic perspective on the establishment of the Australian Space Agency for the United Nations Association of Australia. She comments on:

  • Australia’s natural advantages in space science, and growing interests in the field.
  • How the new agency will contribute to Australia’s international interests.
  • The need to get involved in multilateral space diplomacy, and play a part in setting and maintaining rules.

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would suggest that Indigenous Australians may well have the world’s oldest continuing cosmology — another reason for deep respect.

Thank you to the United Nations Association of Australia, ACT Division, and to the Australian National University’s Centre for International and Public Law, for giving me the opportunity this evening to speak about the international dimensions of Australia’s growing interests in space.

As we mark the beginning of World Space Week — an international celebration of science and technology first declared by the UN General Assembly in 1999 — it is fitting that I make my first public remarks as DFAT Secretary on space here at an event organised by the UN Association of Australia, dedicated as it is to work on behalf of the United Nations to promote its aims and ideals.

Although I am by no means an expert on space, in preparing this public lecture, I found myself reaching back into my filing cabinet for an earlier speech I made on space.

Much earlier, in fact. It was 1991 at the 47th session of the United Nations General Assembly in the Special Political Committee and I was making a statement as the Australian Representative under Item 72: International Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

I was a youngish diplomat, newly promoted to Counsellor and speaking for the first time in a multilateral setting on behalf of my country.

The setting — the UN — and the subject — the peaceful uses of outer space — made a deep impression on me, so much so that I kept the hard copy (there were no soft copies then).

The Cold War was over. That year, speaker after speaker in the General Debate conveyed a sense of renewed confidence in the United Nations system and its ability to tackle issues of global and regional concern. There was a focus on the role of preventive diplomacy in identifying and defusing threats to our collective security.

It was International Space Year and on behalf of Australia I welcomed the conclusion, after thirteen years, of negotiations on a set of principles relevant to the use of nuclear power sources in outer space.

I made a rather obvious point about there being much still to do to develop international cooperation in the peaceful uses of outer space and about the need to ensure the benefits were shared by all countries and all peoples.

We needed to be alert to the costs as well as the benefits.

And we needed to engage in what I called “preventive outer space diplomacy”.

Let me now fast forward to 2018 and make another rather obvious point.

As the international agenda becomes more crowded, more complex and more contested, the United Nations only becomes more important to Australia.

Australia’s interests are strongly served by acting with others to support a rules-based international order.

This was a central point in the Foreign Policy White Paper that the Australian Government launched last December.

But international institutions, with the United Nations at their centre, carry an increasing load.

They must grapple with new technologies, engage more participants in international affairs, manage new dimensions for rivalry and cooperation, and often they must cope with a renewed intensity in that rivalry.

The space agenda certainly bears that out, as I will explain.

But of course, space is also a domain – the iconic domain – of opportunity and scientific advance.

Space arouses awe in some, and for many, wonder at the sheer scale and beauty of the universe, and our temerity in venturing to understand, as Brian Schmidt has done to such stunning effect, and explore it.

Yet at the same time, our use of space is becoming an essential part of our everyday business and, increasingly, a key to the innovation that will keep Australian businesses internationally competitive.

Today, nurturing and protecting our interests in space is core business for the Australian Government.

I believe it is vital that a wide range of Australians – from science, industry, defence, as well as government agencies — understand our interests in space, and how they play into our wider international interests.

So I’m glad to be here with you tonight.

I will set out Australia’s advantages and growing interests in space, and touch on the contribution that Australia’s space agency will make to Australia’s international interests, including through the power of innovation and inspiration.

I will also discuss Australia’s international interests in space, in the context of the foreign policy agenda that we set out in the White Paper.

Australia’s growing interests in space

When many Australians think of space, they’ll think of The Dish – the Rob Sitch movie from the year 2000.

The movie is worth remembering just for the title – a great pun – and for Sam Neill’s acting, excellent as always.

But it’s also a good starting point for our discussion.

It tells the story of those Australians at Honeysuckle Creek and Parkes who were the first to see Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on the 20th of July, 1969.

They helped produce the vision, and they helped bring the first moon walk to the world.

Australians were on the front line, and we still are.

Geographically, we are exceptionally well placed to play a leading role in international collaboration on space, as the only continent in the southern hemisphere between the vast Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Our enormous interior desert is a gift to astronomy, and it will keep on giving, as the Square Kilometre Array comes on line.

Our crystal-clear skies are just as useful for nearer-range earth-to-space communications.

We also have the world class science and advanced manufacturing capabilities we need to invent, build and maintain infrastructure and programs.

The Australian Government is making the most of these advantages.

Over the next four years, Geoscience Australia will invest $225 million to test and develop a satellite-based augmentation system with the aim of making reliable positioning data, accurate to 10 centimetres, available in every corner of Australia.

Areas with mobile coverage will have access to positioning data accurate to 3 centimetres.

This precision has the potential to benefit every industry and business that needs to move objects well, docking an ocean liner or landing a Royal Flying Doctor Service plane, helping farmers reduce costs, improving safety on construction and mining sites.

Practical people all over the country will use this technology to solve problems and improve the way they do things – this is the lifeblood of innovation and economic growth.

Innovation is flourishing in Australia in the space sector itself.

We have had a history of grasping opportunities in space. We launched our first satellite from Woomera in 1967 using a Redstone Sparta rocket left over from a combined US, UK and Australia testing program. With this event, Australia became the third nation to launch a satellite from our own territory.

The tempo of our space activity is picking up again today.

In 2016, Cuberider, a member of Australia’s Delta-V space alliance, made history by sending the first ever Australian payload to the International Space Station.

And last year, a consortium of Australian universities launched three Australian-built research Cubesats into orbit.

These were Australian-made spacecraft travelling into space – the first since 2002.

Importantly, Australians are at the forefront of developing better, more affordable ways to use satellites.

CSIRO’s $200 million venture capital firm, “Main Sequence Ventures”, has invested in a number of space related startups.

One of these, Myriota, founded by two researchers from the University of South Australia, is commercialising satellite technology developed within the University’s Institute for Telecommunications Research.

It’s a great example of an Australian company turning clever technology into a successful business.

The company uses small, low-cost transmitters on low-earth satellites to send small packets of data across an internet-of-things network.

The satellites and sensors are then able to talk to one another without the need for expensive infrastructure back here on the ground.

With its low cost and long battery life, the company’s satellite technology could allow them to apply direct-to-orbit connectivity on a massive scale.

One real world example currently being trialled would help farmers get up-to-date information on water tank levels.

You drop a sensor in a water tank, the data flows from sensor to satellite, and then with an app on a phone, a farmer anywhere in Australia can monitor just how much water is in their tank without having to physically go and check.

The company is aiming to reduce the expensive fees of existing satellite technology, bringing real benefits to working people.

Another application is in the field of defence.

Last year, Myriota and technology company IMeasureU received funding from the Government’s Next Generation Technologies Fund to develop a wearable black box-type “Fight Recorder” for the Australian Army.

The Fight Recorders use Myriota’s technology for emergency beaconing to help locate and aid injured soldiers.

Fully developed, it could also provide benefits for other physically demanding occupations, such as emergency services or law enforcement.

Myriota will be launching their commercial direct-to-orbit IoT connectivity solution this year.

But as their journey so far – from an idea at a university to a technology company that recently raised over 19 million dollars from Boeing – shows, the future is bright for Australians engaging in science and innovation in space.

Examples like these show why space is core business.

State governments are getting behind it, the Space Innovation Fund in South Australia being one example.

In addition to encouraging and nurturing all of this activity and potential, the Government is also setting in place the institutions and policies we need to coordinate and protect our interests in space.

Australia’s space agency

The centrepiece of these efforts, as many of you will know, is the establishment of an Australian Space Agency.

The Agency will be responsible for whole-of-government coordination of civil space matters, and will be the primary source of advice to government on civil space policy.

A number of our cities are interested in hosting the Agency headquarters, pointing to the significant space resources and capability each of them possess.

The Space Agency will drive further innovation across the economy; and will complement our defence exports strategy.

One of its six objectives is to inspire Australians to embrace the potential of space.

As an astronomer (before he became a Vice Chancellor) Brian Schmidt identified that the expansion of the universe was accelerating and won a Nobel Prize. Could there be a more inspiring example for our young scientists?

The time is ripe for breakthroughs just as dramatic in our understanding of how we can use and protect our space environment.

Curiosity, and the determination to test and advance our thinking, is a great source of national strength.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is committed to contestability and innovation in all that we do.

Particle physicist Dr Sarah Pearson leads the way as both our Chief Innovation Officer and our Chief Scientist.

I am delighted at the prospect of science and technology, enterprise and innovation becoming a more prominent part of Australia’s international profile.

A push that now has behind it the rocket fuel of an Australian Space Agency, led by Dr Megan Clark, for which international engagement is a high priority, as it was too when Megan was Chief Executive of CSIRO.

In August, Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, Karen Andrews, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the French Space Agency, and the Government is in discussions with Canada, the UK, the United States and the European Space Agency.

Last week, the Australian Space Agency signed a statement of strategic intent with European manufacturing giant Airbus.

And yesterday it entered into Memoranda of Understanding with counterpart agencies in Canada and the United Kingdom.

DFAT will liaise closely with the space agency in our international engagement on civil space issues – a core part of our wider foreign policy agenda.

Bringing order to the final frontier – space in Australia’s foreign policy

All nations jealously guard their access to space, and it should come as no surprise that the major powers are jostling for influence in setting the rules.

In the face of complexity and uncertainty – as the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper made clear – we must seek opportunity while protecting our interests.

A great deal is at stake for Australia, as you’ve already heard, and it’s vital that we protect our access to space.

We do this by continuing to strengthen our capabilities through our alliance with the United States, and also by strengthening international frameworks and rules for the use of space.

In the Defence domain, both Australia and the US benefit from improved space situational awareness by the relocation of significant US surveillance assets, C-Band Radar from Antigua, and soon, the Space Surveillance Telescope from New Mexico, to the Harold E. Holt Communications Station in Western Australia.

We will need to be more active internationally on space if we are to continue to reap the economic and strategic benefits.

As this audience well knows, the outer space environment is changing. And it’s changing fast.

Space is democratising — and the barriers to accessing space are tumbling as the sector is disrupted by technology that is far cheaper to build, launch and maintain.

There has been a large uptick in the number of states that have become space-faring nations – seeking the same societal and economic benefits the established space players have enjoyed almost exclusively.

There are approximately 60 nations and government consortia that own and operate satellites. There are many research and commercial activities developing and deploying micro and small satellites in low earth orbit.

Of course — just like in terrestrial domains — increased activity poses considerable challenges to the finite resources of the spectrum and the available orbital slots.

And more activity unfortunately means more space debris, something I described as a new issue in 1991.

There are now somewhere in the order of 23,000 man-made objects larger than 10cm in orbit, and over 100 million pieces of debris less than 1mm – even submillimetre debris pose a realistic threat to space-based assets due to the high impact speeds in space.

More space debris means rising costs for commercial and civil activities in space, principally through more collision avoidance manoeuvres that, in turn, reduce the operating lifespan of satellites. Space debris also makes managing orbital traffic more challenging.

Without doubt, the most serious causes of space debris are anti-satellite missile tests and on-orbit collisions, which can have strategic consequences.

All of this change is occurring under an international framework of treaties that was built in a very different technological and strategic environment.

The current legal regime for outer space is based on the five UN space treaties.

The most recent, the Moon Agreement, dates from the 1980s.

Australia is a state party to all five treaties. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is the cornerstone of the legal regime. It prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in outer space or on celestial bodies.

But there are currently few limits on the deployment of conventional weapons in outer space, or on ground-based anti-satellite weapons, or on activities that directly or indirectly create space debris.

It is estimated that China’s 2007 test of an anti-satellite missile – which collided with and destroyed a non-operational Chinese weather satellite – generated a cloud of more than 3,000 pieces of debris. This cloud is the largest ever tracked, and much of it will stay in orbit for decades, posing a significant collision threat to other space objects.

For a number of years efforts have been underway in UN and other fora to build on the current treaty framework and enhance the security and sustainability of outer space.

The Conference on Disarmament has a standing agenda item on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space and there is also work in the International Telecommunications Union – which oversees orbit registration and bandwidth – and the World Meteorological Organisation.

But different countries have different and conflicting initiatives and approaches to space security issues.

Russia and China are promoting a draft treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space. In the proposal, State Parties would commit to refrain from placing objects carrying any type of weapon into orbit, installing weapons on celestial bodies, and threatening to use force against objects in outer space.

Russia also promotes the No First Placement initiative, where countries pledge not to be the first to place weapons in space.

Both of these initiatives would provide limited comfort and could have counterproductive consequences by allowing unfettered development of terrestrial and dual-use counter-space systems.

While Australia is in favour of the prevention of an arms race in outer space, we do not support either of these initiatives.

The draft treaty on banning weapons in outer space appears to be at least as much about strategic manoeuvring as meaningful arms control.

And there are two fundamental issues with both of these proposals. First, they fail to provide a workable definition of a space ‘weapon’.

Second, they also fail to provide a verification mechanism to determine whether weapons have been placed in space. Any manoeuvrable space object is a potential weapon. In crude terms, they become space battering rams.

Some of you may be aware of the US statement on space security at the Conference on Disarmament in August this year. The statement was sharply critical of Russian space-related activity and of Russia’s No First Placement resolution and its proposed Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space.

The US official – Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, Yleem Poblete– called attention to Russia’s evolving anti-satellite weapons programs, including its announcement of the development of a mobile attack anti-satellite system and deployment of a mobile laser system.

Assistant Secretary Poblete also referred to detection of unusual manoeuvres by a Russian satellite in October 2017. The Russians claimed this manoeuvring was for inspection purposes of other satellites, but Assistant Secretary Poblete claimed it exhibited “very abnormal behaviour” for such a function and noted the challenges of verification.

Poblete did not directly refer to this as a possible test of an orbital anti-satellite weapon. Rather, she emphasised: “We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it”.

She said, “Russian intentions with respect to this satellite were unclear and were obviously a very troubling development – particularly, when considered in concert with statements by Russia’s Space Force Commander that assimilating new prototypes of weapons into Space Force’s military units was a main task facing the Aerospace Forces Space Troops.”

Australia agrees that there is legitimate doubt and no way to verify the Russian satellite’s true purpose. We share US concerns, and recognise that we need to work with the US and others to maintain our access to space over the longer-term.

It is these problems of verification and dual-use capability that make credible arms control in outer space such a challenge. Ostensibly, civilian satellites can disguise malign purposes.

So do we need a treaty?

In addressing these and other issues, the question is whether legally binding agreements or the approach Australia and others favour, of developing non-binding, norm-building Transparency and Confidence Building Measures or “TCBMs”, offer the best way to enhance space security.

Australia has long focused our international engagement on encouraging responsible and peaceful uses of outer space, particularly through the creation of such measures.

The value of TCBMs is clear: they provide pragmatic, voluntary actions through which governments can address challenges and share information with the aim of creating mutual understanding and reducing tensions. Over time, states develop habits, patterns and norms of international behaviour.

Transparency and Confidence Building Measures do not limit any State’s use of outer space for peaceful purposes as codified in the Outer Space Treaty. Nor do they impose requirements that might act as a barrier to the space activities of developing countries. On the contrary, transparency and information sharing help preserve the space environment in the interest of all countries.

This was recognised in the 2013 report of the UN Group of Governmental Experts on space, which recommended states work together on TCBMs and build norms of responsible behaviour in space.

The 2013 UN Group of Governmental Experts report on TCBMs was agreed by consensus and provides a framework for space safety, security and sustainability that can be used immediately on a voluntary basis.

This framework was the basis for our support of the European Union’s initiative to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities – which, to our disappointment, faltered in New York in July 2015. We know the EU remains optimistic there is a future for this initiative. We remain ready to resume this conversation.

The UN’s report on TCBMs and the EU’s Code of Conduct are both practical ways forward because they focus on positive behaviours.

In contrast, the treaty that China and Russia propose would seek to regulate specific assets – actual objects in space – and here lies a minefield of definitional, scope and verification issues.

To give a practical example, last month, a British satellite successfully deployed a net in orbit to demonstrate how to capture space junk. The prosaically named RemoveDebris satellite launched its own rapidly spinning Cubesat. Around 20 seconds later, the RemoveDebris satellite fired a six-pointed star-shaped net to recapture the Cubesat. Researchers hope the satellite will also test a harpoon designed to spear space junk

While these experiments are clearly aimed at tackling the space debris problem, what is to stop this kind of technology being deployed offensively against other space objects?

We have to consider these military and strategic implications. But would we want to limit technology that can help us clean up the space environment? This is potentially what the draft treaty would do.

Our view is that it is better to limit bad behaviour in space.

A first step is to clarify how international law applies in space.

There is general agreement among States that international law, including the provisions of the UN Charter, applies to the activities of States in outer space. The applicability of international law is clearly set out in the Outer Space Treaty and has been reiterated consistently in key UN General Assembly resolutions, declarations of States and core treaties relating to outer space.

There is a need for further work in this area to facilitate agreement amongst States on how international law applies to State conduct in outer space, which will in turn build transparency and confidence in how States behave in outer space. This could eventually culminate in a new legal instrument, but there is much important TCBMs and norm-building work needed to pave the way.

Australia is participating actively in a Group of Governmental Experts on Further Practical Measures for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space. The Group has been mandated to consider and make recommendations on substantial elements of an international legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space, including, inter alia, on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space. Assuming that consensus can be reached, the Group will deliver its report to the Secretary-General in 2019.

Australia is committed to a rules-based global order, which extends to space. We want to work with allies and key partners to coordinate positions on challenges and initiatives to ensure the long-term sustainability, safety and security of the outer space domain.

We have enhanced our Defence cooperation on space with Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States by establishing a partnership through the Combined Space Operations Initiative. This grouping allows for more effective and coordinated use of military space capabilities and better cooperation on, for instance, identifying and understanding what objects are in space, and protecting our access to vital military space systems.

We believe this cooperation will make a significant contribution towards a safer and more secure space environment.

As the number of States with an interest in outer space grows, we need the right rules of the road, as it were. This is the best form of preventive space diplomacy. We will continue our collaborative work, examining the existing legal framework for outer space, and working out how it can best function for current and future needs.


Bringing order to the final frontier is an important part of our work to help bring about the kind of peace we want: prosperous, open, inclusive; and in which all major powers make a contribution to solving global challenges.

Our space research and enterprise is a great statement to the international community that we are a creative, sophisticated, adventurous people – and it’s a great boon for our economic growth and the jobs that creates for Australians.

Australia at the forefront in civil uses of space, and a champion of sound and strong international relations that protect it.

Australia remains flexible and open-minded as we contemplate how best we can contribute to international efforts to ensure the long-term sustainability, stability, safety and security of outer space.

It’s an important aspect of our overall effort to strengthen and advance international rules and partnerships that underpin our prosperity and security.

I encourage you all to develop and integrate your knowledge of the many ways space matters for Australia – it’s exciting, complex and important, and we need many good minds on the job.

Frances Adamson delivered this speech in Canberra on October 4, 2018.

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