The Australian space sector is at risk of “shutting down before it starts” due to bureaucracy at the Australian Space Agency and delays in issuing permits to local companies, according to independent senator Rex Patrick.
Senator Patrick clashed with Agency representatives over the issuing of permits for space launches and facilities during a Senate Estimates hearing on Wednesday afternoon.
Representatives from the Australian Space Agency confirmed that there have been 12 “complex” applications for launches in Australia, with two of these having progressed to the actual application phase.
Senator Patrick raised concerns that no permits at all have been issued yet, and this is leading some companies to reconsider Australia as the location for their launches.
“I’ve spoken to companies that are investing millions of dollars of their money and the space agency is not keeping up by any stretch of the imagination. That’s what’s been communicated to me by industry,” Senator Patrick said.
“We are on a knife’s edge. You’ve got 12 applications in and the companies who are seeking to use Australian launch facilities are very worried about their payload to the point where some are no longer willing to commit to Australia. If we don’t get it right now there will be no future.”
The Senator pointed to a recent launch of a commercial rocket in South Australia by Southern Launch and DEWC. The companies had to cut short the launch by nearly 20km after being unable to obtain a permit for an over-100km launch by the space agency, despite submitting an application in December last year.
“On the basis of the fact there have been no facility permits issued, no launch permits issued, you don’t have an application form for a launch or facility permit, you’ve got no public guidance on how to make applications or internal guidance for how to process applications and you’ve got no suitable experts to assist to getting to the point of satisfying the requirements of a launch application,” Senator Patrick said.
“We’ve seen a launch where they couldn’t get to 101km on the basis they had no permit, and we’ve got industry contacting me concerned that they are going to lose customers on the inability to get launch permits.”
Australian Space Agency boss Dr Megan Clark said the launch permits are a key priority for the organisation.
“Both the industry and ourselves are aligned in that we want to see safe and regulated launches, and from our approach it’s been balancing the entrepreneurial approach with making sure we’re maintaining public safety and national security,” Dr Clark said.
“Given this is the first time both the applications and the agency has been through this process, I’ve spoken to several of the chief executives in the industry and I think we would certainly like to have another round of consultation in the new year where we can look at areas where we can improve the process and hear from all the different applicants in that process.”
The cost of conducting a launch in Australia was also raised by Senator Patrick, with one from a mobile launch to set a company back about $260,000, whereas in the US it would be free.
“If you were a commercial company and given the choice of paying $260,000 or paying nothing, would you go to the US or go to Australia?” he said.
The agency will be undertaking consultations with the space industry on proposed new rules around this fee arrangement next year.