Victoria has thrown its hat in the ring to host the Australian Space Agency, with the state government playing on its advanced manufacturing and science credentials.
Victorian industry minister Ben Carroll has requested a one-on-one meeting with federal innovation minister Michaelia Cash at the end of June, and will be putting in a formal bid when the process opens next month.
The national space agency will launch in July with $26 million funding over four years. The agency’s inaugural boss Dr Megan Clarke’s first job will be to decide where the agency should be located permanently, while it is temporarily housed in the industry department in Canberra.
Competition is already high between Australia’s state and territories, with Victoria’s bid joining strong early campaigns from Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales.
Launching the campaign this week, Mr Carroll pointed to the state’s strong reputation for advanced manufacturing and data science, along with the number of national and global space companies already based in Melbourne, including Lockheed Martin, Thales, Boeing and BAE Systems.
“Victoria has generations of manufacturing experience and major companies willing to invest. This makes us the perfect home for the Australian Space Agency,” Mr Carroll said.
Associate professor in astrophysics at Swinburne University Alan Duffy is working with the state government on the campaign, and said Victoria has all the credentials to help the agency reach its full potential.
“With a fifth of all Australian aerospace companies and most of the global primes set up already within the state, we have those industry-ready links. This is really the focus for Victoria – the ability to rapidly build for space but also to use that data from space,” Professor Duffy told InnovationAus.com.
“We have advanced AI learning hubs in this state, such as my own university Swinburne’s Data Science Institute, and that’s where we can offer the scale and capacity that is perhaps unmatched. If we build the headquarters here it will have closer access to our advanced manufacturing and data science.”
Securing the agency would be a major coup for Victoria, following disappointment of losing its $5.2 billion bid to build Australia’s next generation of armoured tanks.
Fishermans Bend would appear to be the ideal location for such an agency, with the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering, Boeing Aerostructures Australia, SupaCat and Defence Science and Technology Group already in the developing precinct.
“It’s about international visibility. As a nation we have really showed the critical role that advanced manufacturing and data science plays in this new frontier of the space industry,” Professor Duffy said.
“Victoria has natural advantages that will support Australia’s efforts in space to succeed, wherever the headquarters may go. But it will be a welcome public statement of support on a federal level for the unique assets and abilities of Victoria.
New South Wales also recently launched its own bid for the space agency, recruiting Australian astronaut Paul Scully-Power to lead the push.
The state government said the agency’s headquarters could be directly linked with Sydney’s new Aerotropolis, around the new Badgerys Creek airport.
South Australia and Western Australia also declared their intentions to campaign for the agency earlier this year, emphasising their wealth of potential launch sites and industry links.
South Australian premier Steven Marshal has already met with several heavyweight federal politicians, while ACT chief minister Andrew Barr has claimed that Canberra is the “natural home” for the agency”.
The Opposition has raised concerns over the states and territories being thrown against each other and forced to pitch for the agency, with shadow innovation minister Kim Carr saying he is concerned it will lead to “marginal seat pork barrelling, pitting states against each other as possible hosts, rather than seeking their collaboration in the national interests”.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute space lead Dr Malcolm Davis also recently raised concerns with the competition between states, saying it is “counter-productive” to the agency’s national focus.
“It’s actually detracting from the whole purpose of the organisation, which is to develop Australia as a space power” Dr Davis said.
“It’s ludicrous to say ‘Victoria should have it over South Australia’. It’s going to be a national activity.”
But Professor Duffy said the competition will be positive for the agency and help each state and territory to identify its unique strengths in the sector.
“I think it’s positive to have that kind of rivalry. It sharpens your offerings as a state and makes clear just what each state can do best, and that is really a good thing for Australia as a whole,” he said.
“Regardless of where it’s situated we’ll need the best capabilities of all states and territories to drive Australia in space. We need to take the best from each state and fit them together to make it a national capability that is truly of international relevance,” he said.
Once the permanent home of the space agency is announced, it’s important that all states and territories work together to ensure it is successful, he said.
“Western Australia has exciting opportunities in receiver technology. We can take the data from WA to the supercomputers here in Victoria. That’s an example of the kinds of collaboration that will be required to make this Australian industry a success in the future,” Professor Duffy said.
The federal government allocated $26 million over four years for the establishment of the space agency, a figure that has been widely criticised within the industry as not nearly enough.
But Professor Duffy said the amount will get the agency off the ground, and then it’s up to the private sector to support the agency and industry within Australia.
“It’s enough to establish the space agency as a central authority and point of contact, and the $15 million is very welcome to establish international partnerships, and it really allows Australia to leapfrog to the absolute highest level of technological and engineering excellence,” he said.
“The idea of generating 10-20,000 jobs and creating value to the Australian economy worth billions of dollars can only come from private investment.
“That has to be in partnership with our universities and the incredible technologies being developed within them. I don’t think there’s any idea that the space agency would be able to generate the kind of economic returns without that industry involvement from the beginning.
“There is no doubt that the greatest gains are from private investment. The space agency is not about putting people in space, it’s about creating jobs for those people on Earth.
“Victoria would have that as an absolute primary focus, as would any other state or territory hosting it.”
This can be seen through a bid for a Smartsat Cooperative Research Centre in partnership between South Australian and Victorian universities.
“It’s a great example of how industry and university can work together across states for the betterment of the nation. It’s one of the most exciting efforts involving the space industry that I’ve seen for a while,” Professor Duffy said.
Regardless of where the space agency is eventually located, its launch and the emphasis placed on the space agency across Australia is “incredibly exciting”, he said.