The Melbourne Space Program

28 June 2016

In 2014, Troy McCann was coming to the end of a Bachelor of Engineering at the University of Melbourne when he received an email in his student inbox.

“Dear students,” it read. “Are you interested in contributing to the design, implementation, testing of a cube sat (small satellite) that will be launched into space in 2018?”

It was October and McCann was in the midst of exams. But he kept thinking about the email. In December, he finally replied after a friend asked him to help organise the project. He was introduced to what was, at the time, a group of around 20 electrical engineering students. They were learning about satellites together.

It turned out there had been no exclusively Australian satellites launched since 1970.

Which is strange. Space is a thriving business. Australia is the only country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development without a space agency. As McCann explained to me, every industry relies on space technology. Satellites are integral, for example, for defence, for monitoring the environment and for the finance sector – banks need them for ultra-accurate timekeeping.

But the regulations around space in Australia are strict. For instance, the Space Activities Act 1998 requires that satellites be insured for at least $750 million. Despite this stringency, the price of launching things into orbit has dropped since 1998. Satellites are much smaller, and often they can piggyback into space on rockets already headed there for a small fee. Also, low Earth orbit is becoming more viable. The gravity is stronger closer to Earth, so satellites only stay in low Earth orbit for a short time before they fall. This was a bigger deal when satellites were the size of trucks and cost millions of dollars. Today, we can launch cheaper rockets that only deploy small satellites into low Earth orbit.

In a few years, McCann says, his team’s satellite might only cost $20,000 to launch. Insurance worth $750 million makes no sense.

Why is Australian space law so strict? There are a few reasons. Australia is a party to the five United Nations space treaties. These agreements have provisions that place unlimited liability on the Australian government for any damage Australian satellites cause to other countries or their people.

Some of this comes down to the relationship between Australia and the United States. At the moment, Australia gets most of its satellite data, including GPS, from the US. The US gives this data to Australia for free. In return, Australia lets the US use the Pine Gap facility in the Northern Territory. Pine Gap acts as the ground station for all US satellites for about one third of the globe. The station is essential for a bunch of controversial American programs, like global surveillance and drone strikes. So the US has an interest in keeping Australia dependent on it for satellite data, which partly explains why these international treaties are stacked against allowing Australia’s space industry to flourish.

McCann and his team found that many of the problems with building a space sector in Australia were not rocket science. Often they came down to questions of law and foreign policy. Yet nobody was framing the debate in Australia in this way.

“Space in Australia is essentially purely academic,” says McCann. “The government is making the argument that we get all this data for free. And the scientists are saying that we would get all this scientific benefit from satellites. They’re arguing different things.”

Under McCann’s guidance for the last year and a half, the student club has expanded to become the incorporated Melbourne Space Program. There are now over 200 people involved, including a team of law students looking at the legal framework for space activities. The Australian government is currently reviewing the Space Activities Act, and the legal team has been invited to Parliament House to discuss potential changes in the name of promoting innovation.

The expanded Melbourne Space Program also includes a team of marketing students working on public awareness and events. The Final Frontier Festival is starting on 29 June. This five-day festival, to be held on the Parkville campus, will celebrate everything space-related in Australia, with a range of workshops, talks, exhibitions and events.

“I’m really excited to finally be seeing an Australian event where academia, industry, the innovation sector, and government all come together to discuss how Australia should be moving forward in space,” says McCann. “There are a lot of conversations happening, and it’s time that they converge so we can take action.”

It is hard to know what the Melbourne Space Program will be in ten years. It could end up transforming into some kind of publicly funded think tank, or even a much smaller, Australian NASA. Since Australia doesn’t have anything resembling a space agency, the former student club is filing a nationwide gap.

For now, McCann and his team are concentrating on designing and building the first fully Australian satellite since 1970, which they intend to launch in 2018. Watch this space.

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