Science

Australia set to create nation's first space agency

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UNSW-EC0, a satellite built at the University of New South Wales in Australia, had to hitch a ride to space on a U.S. rocket in 2017.

University of New South Wales

Australia is set to announce the country’s first space agency. Although the emphasis will apparently be on the commercial utilization of space, researchers are hoping there will be purely scientific efforts as well.

The government plans to provide AU$38 million in “seed money” to get the agency up and running, Australian media reported today. Officials are expected to formally announce the move on 8 May.

Geologist Megan Clark will lead the new agency, according to reports. She was formerly chief executive of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra, the country’s network of laboratories. She also led an expert panel that the government created last year to explore the idea of establishing a space agency.

Researchers are applauding the pick. Clark “can be trusted to set the agency up in the right direction,” says Anna Moore, an astronomer at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

Despite the modest funding and emphasis on applied technology, the decision to establish the agency “is a major landmark for Australian industry and science,” says Peter Quinn, an astronomer and executive director of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, a joint institute of Curtin University and the University of Western Australia, both in Perth.

Space enthusiasts have called for Australia to establish its own space agency in the past. But the drive gained momentum last July, when the government set up the expert group to evaluate the nation’s space industry capabilities. It was charged with developing “a long-term plan to grow this important and exciting sector.” The panel delivered its report at the end of March. The report has not yet been made public, but it is widely believed that “the primary objective is developing the space industry in Australia, but my understanding is that potentially there will be a science component,” says Matthew Colless, an astrophysicist at ANU.

Colless notes that there is already some space science being done in Australia. Teams have designed and built small satellites for studies ranging from Earth observation to astrophysics, but other countries have launched the spacecraft. The community hopes a growing space agency “will allow us to upscale our satellites,” Colless says. He adds that having a national space agency could also open the door to official participation in larger international missions.

The agency might also help boost science education efforts, Moore says. A more active Australian space program, she notes, could “inspire the nation, especially young kids.”

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