Friday, June 2, 2023

Australia’s first national space mission up in the air after federal budget cuts

Australia’s first national space mission – building satellites to detect and respond to bushfires and floods, and to undertake maritime surveillance – is up in the air.

The former Coalition government announced $1.2bn for a National Space Mission for Earth Observation (NSMEO), designing, building and operating four new satellites, in March last year.

James Brown, the chief executive officer of the Space Industry Association of Australia, described it as “the most strategic and significant space public policy in 40 years”.

Those satellites would be able to gather data on natural disasters, agriculture, the weather, and conduct marine surveillance for the Department of Defence.

The Australian Space Agency (ASA) said at the time it was a “milestone moment” that would keep Australians “safe and secure” and create jobs for “generations to come”.

The mission would be led by the ASA, in partnership with the defence department, the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and Geoscience Australia.

But there were concerns the federal government would target the mission as it ran the ruler over costs, and this week industry insiders said the mission was “dead”, and described the situation as “demoralising”.

In Tuesday’s budget, the federal government axed three other space projects, but said “the next steps for the NSMEO will be outlined in due course”.

There is still a budget line item for the mission, but for each year of the forward estimates the spend is listed as “not for publication”. The parliamentary budget office says the main reasons for not publishing budget estimates “are that their publication would provide information that should not be disclosed to the public for either commercial‑in‑confidence or national security reasons”.

The three programs terminated in Tuesday’s budget were the Australian Spaceports program, the Australian Technology into Orbit program, and a sub-program of the Moon to Mars program aimed at helping space organisations be part of the supply chain for Nasa’s plans to go to the Moon within a decade, and on to Mars after that.

“[The] budget included a $77m saving by terminating three small programs announced by the previous government shortly before the last election,” a spokesperson for the industry and science minister, Ed Husic, said.

“These programs do not align with the Albanese government’s priorities and do not deliver value for money for the taxpayer.

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“Of this saving, $34m was reinvested into core funding for the [ASA] to put it on a sustainable footing, with $43m put toward budget repair.”

Brown said the government was “defunding space programs without explanation”.

He said the supply chain program was “the only program specifically designed to help Australian space small to medium enterprises get into global supply chains”.

On the NSMEO, he said the space sector and its workers needed certainty from the government “about what its plan for space is”.

Husic’s spokesperson said the government was investing more than $10bn in space over the forward estimates (most of which will go to defence’s Space Command), and that the $15bn National Reconstruction Fund and $392m Industry Growth Program also provided “future opportunities for the space sector”.

Brown said he welcomed the NRF funding but the delays getting it through parliament disadvantaged space companies “trying to compete in the global space economy”.

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