Australia-US in talks on space technology treaty

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Joseph Brookes

The Australian government will negotiate a bilateral treaty with the US for protections of space technology, in a bid to attract more American investment and access to sensitive technology and data into the local market.

Controversial fees charged to local companies by the Australian Space Agency for launches will also be delayed a further year in a boost to the local sector.

The treaty, known as a Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA), is critical for allowing the use of US space technology in foreign space programs, and the US has already signed such arrangements with the UK and New Zealand.

The Australian government on Thursday said it would commence negotiations for its own TSA with the US and also to defer the introduction of fees for launch applications another year.

Local firm Southern Launch has won the first licence to run a space launch facility in Australia this year

The government intends to charge space companies the fees through a Commonwealth Cost Recovery Scheme, which leading local launch companies have warned will act as a deterrent to more launches and are anticompetitive compared with other nations.

Launch permits fees are currently estimated to be nearly $200,000 for a single launch and much more if the payload is returning to earth.

The implementation of the fees was delayed last year in response to COVID-19 and will now be pushed back another year.

The two measures were announced by the federal government on Thursday, the third anniversary of the Australian Space Agency.

“In negotiating a proposed TSA with the US, the government is considering how this opportunity could further enhance space collaboration and protect the movement of sensitive technologies and goods with one of our closest allies, while retaining flexibility for our local industry to continue to grow and providing new opportunities for Australian space businesses,” Industry minister Christian Porter said in a statement.

The US already has similar agreements with several other countries, including five eyes partners the UK and New Zealand. The agreement allows US companies to operate from foreign spaceports and export space launch technology.

TSAs establish the principals under which US space technology like launch equipment, data and spacecraft, can be licenced for export by the US authorities to foreign countries for use in spaceflight activities.

The bilateral agreements can also include counter-proliferation provisions, such as the TSA signed by the UK and US last year which included a commitment not to transfer technology which could be used to launch weapons of mass destruction without proper authorisation.

The Australian TSA will set out the principles on which US and Australian companies can collaborate on local launch projects with sensitive US technology and data being protected, the government said, but it did not provide specific details on the agreement or when negotiations would formally commence.

Adelaide based spacetech Southern Launch welcomed both moves from the government.

“After a successful, efficacious negotiation, this agreement will unlock the US space market, allowing the Australian space sector to engage more freely with US space organisations and realise Australia’s full space market potential,” the company said.

“Southern Launch welcomes the deferral of cost recovery on launch applications for another year as it will allow launches from Australia to be more commercially competitive when compared to the global market, and encourages the Australian Space Agency to continue to reassess the scheme for the longer term.”

Australian Space Agency head Enrico Palermo said the two measures would help grow the local sector.

“The US and Australia have a long-standing, close and strong collaboration in space exploration. These negotiations open up new opportunities for our nations to work together and continue to grow the Australian space industry through cooperation in space,” Mr Palermo said.

“Deferring fees for another 12 months will also provide opportunities to grow the sector, particularly our domestic launch capability.”

The Australian Space Agency was established in 2018 under the Turnbull government. It is headquartered in the Adelaide innovation precinct Lot Fourteen. According to the government, it has so far been allocated more than $700 million in funding.

“We have an opportunity to enhance national, sovereign space capability through increasing collaboration to optimise and deliver investment with precision,” Mr Palermo wrote in reflecting on the agency’s third anniversary.

“We can do this through space missions that address some of Australia’s greatest challenges, and through reducing barriers to enable companies to scale their activities accessing both domestic and international markets. Working with organisations across the Australian Government, we will unlock opportunities to the full space value chain.”

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