Western Australia’s emerging space industry has strong opportunities for small and medium businesses, according to Professor Steven Tingay, Deputy Executive Director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.
He says it’s a competitive sector, with many domestic and international businesses and individuals eager to capitalise on its anticipated growth.
Partnering with a large organisation that is well-established in the industry, or a university, gives SMEs the best chance to get their ‘foot in the door’, Tingay says.
“Universities have big research and scientific initiatives that might not be big money spinners in the short-term but we’ve found, as a university looking to translate some of our work, SMEs are the best way to go in terms of getting together to develop a product and potentially bring it to market,” he says.
“And there are sources of funding through the academic environment that can go to industry.”
Areas of opportunity
Tingay says there are four key areas of the WA space sector, each offering opportunities for businesses and the State’s economy.
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is a major international project that involves building a telescope in the Murchison region.
It is set to be the world’s largest radio astronomy observatory, worth about $3 billion.
“The SKA is going to be an enormous stimulant of the broader space industry,” says Tingay.
Now that construction is underway, he says WA industry is “front and centre” and the project places the State in a “unique global position”.
The southern hemisphere’s limited landmass bodes well for WA, as the State’s vast tracks of open land are appealing to the global space industry, particularly for ground station satellite communications (SATCOM).
This has attracted international and national organisations, including the European Space Agency, for various SATCOM ventures.
“WA occupies a good place in the world for establishing significant SATCOM activities and I think we are going to see more of that in the future,” Tingay says.
Space situational awareness
Space situational awareness refers to keeping track of objects in orbit and predicting where they will be at any given time.
“I think this will be an area of growth for WA industry and will be incredibly important for the future,” Tingay says.
Space traffic management is gaining significance because “we’re just at the beginning of the era of ‘mega constellations’ [webs of networked satellites]” and WA’s geographical features make it an ideal destination for this work.
There is a growing defence footprint in space, Tingay says, across a raft of activities, in particular at Exmouth with the Space Surveillance Telescope and the C-Band Radar.
In addition, a new ground-based radar for the area was announced late last year under the AUKUS agreement.
He says such defence activities will “stimulate the broader [space] scene”.
Federal policy and support
Ram Kuppusamy, Founder and CEO of WA-based Space Angel, has plans to build the world’s first green spaceport. He says one of the main barriers for businesses is a lack of federal policy direction.
“We are very unclear about what the next steps are for the industry, including the dos and don’ts of technologies. This would enable us to make commercial decisions,” he says.
“Policies need to enable Australian companies, like us, to work with companies in other countries such as South Korea, Japan and India.”
In June 2023, the Federal Government announced budget cuts to Australia’s space industry, including terminating the $1.2 billion National Space Mission for Earth Observation. This involved the design, build, launch and operation of four new Earth satellites, including in WA, to gather data for weather forecasting and responding to natural disasters.
The Australian Civil Space Strategy 2019 – 2028 states the industry will stimulate at least $1b of in-bound capital, grow more than 8.5% year-on-year, triple Australia’s gross domestic product to $12b and create 20,000 jobs by 2030.
However, according to the latest biennial State of Space report, published in April 2022, annual growth and contribution to GDP are behind target, at 2.9% and $4.6b for FY2019.
Distance, skills shortages, competition
The WA space sector experiences similar challenges to other industries, Tingay says, such as distance and skills shortages.
Australia is also competing with other countries with more established space industries, which Tingay says is evident when procurement opportunities arise but are quickly filled by large organisations from countries such as the United States.
“On the flipside, space is a completely different sector and there’s a level of excitement about it,” he says.
“I tend to have PhD students enrolling with me who have had a career in another sector, but have decided they really want to work in the space industry.
“I think that is a very positive aspect about diversification – to have a few more strong sectors that people can cycle in and out of over the course of a long career.”
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