By Prudence Buckland(Solicitor). King & Wood Mallesons

The space industry is abuzz following New Zealand start up Rocket Lab’s successful rocket launch last week. With the Australian Government intending to establish a national space agency, 2018 is shaping up to be a fascinating year for the sector. 

The creation of the agency is part of a longer-term plan to boost local space capability and build international representation in the sector. The decision to create an agency foreshadows a suite of recommendations set to come from a broader review into Australia’s space industry: the Federal Government shone a spotlight on space in 2017 by announcing a review to identify opportunities for commercial investment in the space sector (the Review).

There has been excitement about space in the past, but what is different this time is the accessibility of opportunity to a broader range of industry players through technology innovation and globalisation, and changing models of how public and private work together.

A lot has been happening in the sector. Aside from the announcement of the Review and the decision to create a space agency, new space legislation has been prepared, international rules for military uses of outer space are being developed and local governments are looking to drive space innovation.  It is expected that the Review will provide its final strategy to government in March (along with a charter for the space agency) and a draft space Bill will be introduced early this year – so keep an eye out!

But what is the story so far? This article explores each of the key developments for the sector – read on to find out more.

A strategy for participating in the global market

From 1998 to 2015, the space industry sector grew at a compound annual growth rate of 9.52% (more than three times the annual growth rate of world GDP in the same period) and in 2015, global revenue from space-related activities was approximately US$323 billion.  The stated purpose of the Government’s Review is to ensure Australian industry can participate in this global market.

The Review announced by the Government is to build on the principles in Australia’s Satellite Utilisation Policy (2013).  The Review’s terms of reference identify the matters that it will address, including:

  • capability — identifying current gaps in capability and technologies and practices that will promote innovation in downstream (users of space technologies) and upstream (providers of space technologies) space activities
  • international engagement — identifying critical future and existing partnerships to promote regional engagement and international collaboration in the space sector
  • risks and opportunities — identifying risks and opportunities with respect to space data, infrastructure, Defence and cyber security priorities
  • institutional arrangements — identifying the most effective institutional arrangements to support the strategic direction of the Australian space industry.

Consultation on the Review’s issues paper concluded on 13 September 2017.  Led by an Expert Reference Group, chaired by Dr Megan Clark AC (formerly the Chief Executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), the Review is expected to provide a final strategy to government in March this year.

An anchor for domestic coordination

The Government has committed to establishing a national space agency to help grow the domestic space industry.  The agency is intended to be “the anchor for our domestic coordination and the front door for our international engagement.”  Few details about the future agency have been released – it is unclear how the agency will be structured, what powers it will have or the extent of its oversight functions.

What we do know is that the Review’s Expert Reference Group will develop a charter for the space agency, which is also expected to be handed to government in March this year.

Reshaping the regulatory environment

Space regulation is a key piece of the puzzle.  The balance to be struck between risk and opportunity in Australia’s space legislation – the Space Activities Act 1998 (Cth) – is critical for ensuring innovation activities aren’t unnecessarily inhibited.  In 2015, the Government undertook a review of the Space Activities Act to assess whether the legislation:

  • supported innovation and advancement of space technologies, as well as promoting entrepreneurship and private investment in Australia
  • appropriately protected the Commonwealth against potential liability claims in relation to current and future civil space activities
  • adequately addressed emerging issues such as management of the space environment and technology advancement or convergence
  • appropriately aligned with other related Australian legislation and/or Australia’s international obligations and
  • provided the necessary authority to support Commonwealth led civil space activities.

In short, the review found that the complex structure of the legislation produced an unnecessary level of inflexibility, resulting in inefficiencies for both licence applicants and administering agencies.  This extended to a grant of authorisation under the legislation, as well as complexity around liability provisions and international obligations.

Ultimately, the review concluded that new legislation is required to support the development of the sector.  A draft bill is slated for release for public consultation any day now.

The current Review seeks to build on the findings from the review of the Space Activities Act.

Reaffirming international ties

In October last year, the Government signed the Space Tracking Treaty with NASA, reaffirming a commitment made by Australia and the United States of America in 1957 to collaborate on space exploration.  The treaty will facilitate the continued use of critical spacecraft tracking and communications facilities in Australia.  It covers civil space facilities owned by NASA and located within Australia, including the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla, as well as facilities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

The strategic significance of the treaty is underscored by the role the facilities play to assist human and robotic space missions, providing a two-way communications link for spacecraft guidance and control, and data and image relay.

Notably, the Canberra complex is an integral component of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), the world’s largest and most sensitive scientific telecommunications system. It supports interplanetary spacecraft missions and radio and radar astronomy observations for the exploration of our solar system and the universe.

State-based space race too?

Not content to let their federal counterparts do the heavy lifting, the South Australian, Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory governments have all taken an active role in supporting the domestic space industry.  The SA government, for example, has established a South Australian Space Industry Centre aimed at fuelling space industry innovation.

Last year the SA government also signed a five-year agreement with the ACT government to push for a dedicated national agency, which the Northern Territory later sought to join.  Ministers in each of those states are seeking to pioneer the industry and are exploring international opportunities for commercialisation and investment.

Similarly, the university and research sector are also pushing to develop capability.  UNSW Canberra and ANU, for example, signed a MoU, which will see the Canberra based institutions work together on furthering their endeavours in space. UNSW Canberra, and its new commercialisation vehicle SkyKraft, is leading the development of miniature satellites in Australia while ANU, with its Advanced Instrumentation & Technology Centre at Mount Stromlo, has facilities for satellite and instrumentation testing.

The rules for star wars

Australia is even playing a role in the development of the Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space.  The Manual seeks to clarify the rules applicable to the military use of outer space by both States and non-State actors.  The rules set down in the Manual would govern and regulate activities undertaken in times of peace and during armed conflict.

The Manual is being developed by a team of international experts, in conjunction with the McGill Centre for Research in Air and Space Law and the University of Adelaide’s Research Unit on Military Law and Ethics.

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