Australian astronauts and rockets in the next decade might be too ambitious, experts say
A future Australian astronaut like Andy Thomas might work for Australia instead of NASA. (Reuters:Joe Skipper)
When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, it was just one small step for a man. But what kind of giant leap would it take for Australia to train and employ its own astronauts or send its own spacecraft into orbit?
- The local space industry is worth around $3.9 billion
- Experts have warned Australia has a number of barriers to launching things into space
- The CSIRO said the industry is moving fast and technology is cheaper than ever
Some in the industry think that’s a little optimistic.
But Federal Science Minister Karen Andrews said people shouldn’t dismiss the idea.
“I mean, we have already had a couple of astronauts from Australia and they’ve obviously been involved in launches overseas,” Ms Andrews said.
“Really, who knows where space is going to go?
“So I wouldn’t rule out that we will have astronauts, in time, launching from Australian sites – and that would be wonderful”.
Australia’s space industry is worth around $3.9 billion and employs about 10,000 people.
But the Federal Government wants to triple the industry’s size by 2030.
It recently announced its new space agency in Adelaide and is encouraging young people to consider a career path in areas like space engineering.
“I think towards the end of the 10-year timeframe we’ll actually see some really significant space activity from Australia,” she said.
Australia has areas of coastline suitable for launching rockets and retrieving rockets. (Youtube: University of Adelaide)
Adelaide astronaut launches a longer term goal
But Warwick Holmes, the executive director of space engineering at the University of Sydney, said the idea of Australian astronauts was still a touch ambitious.
“I think [Ms Andrews] was just being optimistic of course and inspiring for young Australian potential space engineers,” he said.
“But in reality we’ve got to have a budget that’s commensurate with what we can afford and what taxpayers can expect to get their money back.”
He said Australia would be better served by finding its own niche in the well-established global space industry.
“What is actually much more effective for taxpayers is the enormous benefit we’d get back in the very short term for things like remote sensing imagery for farming, for our environmental issues to do with coral bleaching, to do with monitoring mining operations,” he said.
“And then much, much later we could look at the possibility of launching our own astronauts.”
Mr Holmes told AM the nation also faced some big challenges when it came to trying to launch things into space.
“We’ve got enormous problems with the geographic, political and economic barriers,” he said.
“For example, we’ve got Indonesia all the way along our northern border and we’re up against eight already very well-established launch bases and pre-existing launch vehicles.”
But the CSIRO’s deputy director of astronomy and space science, Sarah Pearce, said the industry was moving fast.
“Australia has one of the fastest-growing space start-up ecosystems in the world,” she said.
“We’ve got areas of coastline where you could launch rockets and be able to retrieve them from the sea, we’ve got areas that are near the equator and we’ve got areas where you could launch rockets into polar orbit.
“So we’ve got a number of different options for rocket launch capabilities.”
Technological advances mean satellites are becoming smaller and thus cheaper to launch. (Twitter: Julia Gillard)
The prices on space technology have also been coming down, bringing them within Australia’s reach.
“One of the interesting things that’s happening in space at the moment is space is getting cheaper to access because satellites are becoming smaller,” Dr Pearce said.
“That means you can build a satellite and launch it for maybe around a million or two million dollars.”
Dr Pearce said many companies were already looking to set up launch sites in places like the Northern Territory and were hoping to be off the ground within a few years.