Pressure on Space Agency to show fees are competitive

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The Australian Space Agency is confident its processing time on launch and facility licences will come down after bringing on more staff and completing a full cycle of its regulatory framework. But the agency is still under pressure to justify the controversial launch fees it will charge local space companies for applying.

At Senate Estimates last week the Australian Space Agency faced pressure to fully disclose how the fees it charges companies to launch rockets compare with those charged in comparable jurisdictions like New Zealand or the United States.

Space Agency chief executive Enrico Palermo said the agency had the information and would provide it to senators, who had also requested it at the last Estimates hearing in June.

Enrico Palermo
Head of the Australian Space Agency Enrico Palermo said application processing times will improve and more guidance will be provided.

“Charging of fees is mixed around the world,” Mr Palermo said on Thursday. “Some jurisdictions do not charge fees and other jurisdictions have in their regulations to charge fees as part of their programs.”

The Australian Space Agency charges the fees directly through a cost recovery scheme but they have been deferred twice already because of COVID-19. The local sector is warning the fees will be an “uncompetitive cost” when implemented, causing operators to launch from cheaper countries.

Asked about the international competition implications of the fees, Mr Palermo said the “important thing” was that they had been deferred until July next year. Pressed again by the South Australian independent Senator Rex Patrick, he agreed to take the question on notice for a second time.

Mr Palermo also told Estimates the Australian Space Agency was bringing down the time take to process launch and facility licences following the addition of more staff and the recently approved rocket launch by South Australian rocket and facility company Southern Launch.

While the rocket never got off the ground because of technical difficulties, it was fully approved to launch and marked a complete process in the agency’s regulatory framework.

“What’s really exciting is that, in this period, we’ve successfully activated the regulatory framework in relation to launch,” Mr Palermo said.

“That’s a historic moment, and we wouldn’t be there without the hardworking team in our Office of the Space Regulator, which did a lot of processing with the applicant.”

No other launch permits or launch facility licences have been issued since Southern Launch’s failed attempt last month but there are several under assessment, Mr Palermo said. He added he is confident in the processing times and guidance for applicants will improve.

“One thing I can say has happened is that we have cycled the full extent of the legislation, from going through an application all the way to supporting a launch. I think both the industry and the agency have learnt a lot in this process.”

The Space Agency has brought on more staff to help process the applications, after it was revealed last year that only the equivalent of three full time staff worked on applications.

Mr Palermo said more guidance material for applicants should be available online by the end of the year.

“We’ll get the guidance material up, and ultimately the processing of the applications is dependent on us, if it’s to do with processing of information,” he said.

“But it’s also incumbent upon the applicants to provide the necessary information that the minister needs to support approval of a permit or a licence.”

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