James Riley
September 25, 2018

The moon shot of moon shots

Space

The moon shot of moon shots

Dave Williams: The CSIRO executive director says there is a role for Australia on the moon

Strap yourselves in Australia, we’re going to the moon. The CSIRO has launched a space industry roadmap for nation that urges the industry in Australia to get behind efforts to establish a forward base on the moon.

Call it the moon shot to end all moon shots – and just to set expectations, not everyone gets to go – but a coordinated strategic effort to provide technological expertise to the moon base plan would help galvanise the development of Australian capability.

It was stellar line-up of speakers at Australian Space Research Conference on the Gold Coast on Monday, including newly installed Industry Minister Karen Andrews, CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall, and the new Australian Space Agency head Megan Clark (herself a for CSIRO chair).

Karen Andrews told the conference the local space industry was made up of 380 companies, employing about 10,000 people and worth $3.9 billion a year to the economy. This needs to grow, she says.

“Our share of the US$345 billion global space market is just 0.8 per cent. And we are determined to see this grow,” Minister Andrews said.

“That said, we have what it takes to gain a greater share of that market and build a new industry for our nation. The goal is to triple the size of the domestic industry by 2030, adding up to $12 billion to our economy,” she said.

An international coordination group already exists with the aim of expanding human exploration and presence in low Earth orbit, and on the moon and on Mars over the next two decades, according to the CSIRO.

Australian space sector support for the lunar challenge would be an opportunity to grow our existing relationships with global partners, including international space agencies.

The CSIRO space roadmap identifies opportunities for growth and differentiation based on Australia’s natural advantages, and leveraging technological expertise in established industries, and repurposing them for space.

This could be in new materials science, remote mining to extract water, oxygen and inks to print spare parts, agriculture to grow food in inhospitable terrain, and space object tracking.

The CSIRO’s executive director for the Digital, National Facilities and Collections group Dave Williams says the moon shot to join a human moon base is a genuine opportunity that will require serious long-term policy to exploit.

As a former chief executive of the UK Space Agency, and chairman of the European Space Agency, Mr Williams has some serious game in the space sector. The newly launched space agency is modest, but has substantial existing research strengths in Australia to leverage.

“In the US, [President] Trump has declared that a moon base is to take priority over a Mars base. This is because you need a moon base to get to mars is the argument coming out,” Dr Williams said.

“And if you are going to build a base, you are going to need the support systems to enable that base to survive,” he said.

The international lunar mission was a good entry point for collaboration for Australian researchers and industry players to get into the global supply chain that will build the base.

When you are playing catch-up in an industry, it’s best to start in places where no-one is already active, Dr Williams said.

“And when you look at a moon base, the support systems of oxygen, water, food – and the general support systems around it – is something that nobody has ever done before,” he said.

“When we looked around Australia, these are areas where Australia has as much skill as anyone else. Things like dry farming capabilities, remote mining capability, the fact that CSIRO perfected the titanium dust that you can 3-D print from … there are a whole range of things where we can potentially contribute.”

It is an interesting fact that Australia has exceptional expertise in 3D printing titanium. This is even more interesting when you consider that on the moon – according to Dave Williams – there is an oxide that is very similar to titanium that could be reduced to a titanium dust, with oxygen as a by-product.

“Realistically, NASA will lead the whole thing. But they will be looking for partners, and the idea will be to identify which niche areas Australia should try to push its industry into, and try to get support for and to make it work,” he said.

“It literally is the moon shot of moon shoots. It is far from signed and sealed. But it’s one of those things where if you want to do something really ambitious and really long term, you have to look at where Australian industry has as much capability to offer as any other part of the work – then pursue it as an opportunity,” Dr Williams said.

CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall said the Space: A Roadmap for unlocking future growth opportunities for Australia report highlighted Australia’s strengths and geographic advantages to improve the nation’s share of the international space sector.

“Our space roadmap charts a course for economic growth using space, and champions a new era of space exploration to inspire our children with the power of science to make the ‘impossible’ possible,” Dr Marshall said.

“Our existing space industry is built on a foundation of trust earned 50 year ago when we enabled the world to see mankind touch the Moon – that kind of inspiration is a key ingredient in supercharging growth in new industries, new jobs, new STEM talent and developing a dynamic nation where the sky is no longer the limit.”

Developed in consultation with industry, the report presents three key opportunity areas for potential development, which can support the growth of Australia’s ‘space economy’:

  • By building our capabilities in observing Earth from space, satellite communications, and positioning, navigation and timing data, we can grow new service-based businesses that address issues such as disaster and water management.
  • By taking advantage of Australia’s geographic position in the southern hemisphere, we can further our work with international programs that track objects in space, manage space debris, and enable deep space communication.
  • By harnessing our diverse industrial and research strengths across astronomy, mining, manufacturing, medicine, agriculture and robotics for Earth-based industry, we can support space exploration and deep space gateway habitats to safely conduct robotic and human missions.

“CSIRO’s unique position creates a bridge between research and industry to deliver breakthrough innovation to Australian SMEs and start-ups across the space value chain,” Dr Marshall said.

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