The CSIRO’s most senior space sector executive Dave Williams has hailed the Australian Space Agency’s collaborative partnership with NASA and says the $150 million funding commitment from government deals Australia into the upside of the international space research and exploration.
Dave Williams is a CSIRO group executive and is currently the executive director of the research agency’s Digital, National Facilities and Collections division, which includes – among other things – the Astronomy and Space Science business unit, as well as Data61.
Dr Williams, who is a former chief executive of the UK Space Agency and a former chair of the European Space Agency, says the $150 million commitment by the Australian government announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Saturday was large enough “that it allows us to be a real player in the [US-led] lunar program.”
“It’s up there with the amount, for example, that Canada put up. It’s enough that it gives us a genuine role in the program,” he told InnovationAus.com.
“You have to first say congratulations to the Australian Space Agency for putting this thing together. They have done a great job.”
The US’ rekindled ambition for space research and exploration and NASA’s willingness to engage with international researchers and suppliers presented a tremendous opportunity for innovation and industry development in Australia just as much as elsewhere, Dr Williams said.
Dr Williams was a key driver behind the CSIRO’s Space Industry Roadmap launched a year ago that argued Australia should be working hard to position itself to take part in the US plans for a forward base on the moon.
“The main opportunity [I believe] is that we’ve got to work with the Agency – we’ve all got to work together – to position Australian industry to ensure that it has roles in the lunar landing and in the mission to Mars,” he said.
Dr Williams said Australian skills from the mining sector could be especially applicable to the Lunar Gateway project which will establish a space station orbiting the morning, as well as operations on the moon, such as mining or in the construction of a surface station.
These would both likely involve highly robotic operations. “And I think that all of the skills that Australian industry and researchers have built out in remote mining, for example, would be transferable to that sort of robotic work on the gateway.”
“Similarly, on the moon’s surface, any mining, any development or any operations could transfer the sills that we have built in industry and research in Australia. These are very specific areas where Australia today that we can translate.”
The CSIRO’s Data61 unit had build considerable expertise in robotics and autonomous systems, as well as in remote operations management. In fact, the AI and machine learning applications in operations that are managed remotely has become an area of expertise.
While the Australian Space Agency has announced it headquarters and ‘mission control’ operations would be located in Adelaide – much to Premier Steven Marshall’s very public delight – Dr Williams says the industry development dollars to underpin national capability would likely be spread across the country.
“In the modern world it’s going to be much more diffuse than [just Adelaide]. That’s where the agency is putting its headquarters, and where a lot of the work might get done.
“But there are a lot of skills on the West Coast, skills in Queensland, and it New South Wales … We’re going to more of a hub and spoke system, I think, where we have nodes across the country. That will get the different industries in each of those regions involved.”
Dr Williams clearly sees an important role for CSIRO as part of industry development programs aimed at leveraging Moon to Mars and its associated projects.
He says the agency has its own direct relationships with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, largely through its involvement in the operation of the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex at Tidbinbilla.
“But in this one, we supported to the space agency all the way through on the development of the MoU. And we will continue to help wherever we can.”
“Clearly we will be in the mix. The purpose of what CSIRO is all about is helping to build Australian capability, to help build industries, and to help create jobs and economic benefit,” Mr Williams said. “And that is really the primary thrust on this [space] announcement.”
Meanwhile the Industry department has two space sector consultations currently open, although both will finish this week. The first involves the design of the Mission Control Centre grant opportunity guidelines that will help inform the disbursement of the $19.5 million Space Infrastructure Fund.
The second open consultation involves the design of a planned Robotics, Automation and AI Command and Control Centre in Western Australia.