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Science experts warn Australia’s ‘weakest link’ in space is its reliance on foreign satellites

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A 10-year plan for Australian space science published by the Australian Academy of Sciences (AAS) warned of the need for the country to establish its own sovereign satellite capability.

Currently, Australia depends on countries in Europe and the United States to access satellite data.

“The weakest link we have in terms of space capacity is still dependent on other countries for satellite services, particularly for positioning, navigation, timing or observation,” according to Stuart Phinn, Director of the Center for Remote Sensing Research at the University of Queensland. and Founding Director of Earth Observation Australia Inc.

“Having our own set of satellites would remedy this weakness.”

Pinn said that without ownership of a network of Earth observation satellites, the speed at which Australia can respond to weather emergencies, such as the recent volcanic eruptions in Tonga and the Maryborough floods in Queensland, would always be hindered.

“If we had things in place, I would suspect we would have a lot more information a lot quicker, in terms of what’s happening in Tonga and the floods we’ve seen in Queensland,” he said. declared.

The plan further recommends the establishment of a national space weather research program to receive advance warning when a major space weather event occurs in order to protect critical global infrastructure, such as aviation, satellites, power grids and radio communications. The plan states that, based on Australia’s current capability, the country would only receive about an hour’s warning of a major space weather event.

“I can guarantee that at some point there will be a catastrophic space weather event that will fundamentally damage our infrastructure,” said Fred Menk, chair of the expert task force that developed the plan and chair of the National Committee for space and radio science. at ASA.

“What I can’t do is I can’t tell you if it’s going to be next week or 100 years from now, and that’s because we don’t have the science that allows us to do this kind of accurate predictions.

“What we can do is we can build science capacity in Australia because we’re actually experts in this area, and we have a wide range of centers spread across Australia used for knowledge of the spatial situation, among others, for example, astronomy as well.

“Keeping up with the vastly increasing number of space objects is essential. It’s something we can do and it’s something we can contribute to the world by helping to maintain a sustainable use of space for the all of humanity and helping to predict catastrophic space weather events.”

Phinn added that the ability to track major space weather events would allow Australia to examine how the country’s environments are changing, which would be essential for bushfire tracking, carbon counting, biomass assessments and marine resources, as well as for interplanetary exploration and expansion. capabilities in sectors such as defence.

“Building scientific capacity that supports all of these things is critical,” he said.

In the 10-year plan, there is also a recommendation for the introduction of a National Space Education and Innovation Strategy, led by the Australian Space Agency, which is consistent with the national agenda. This strategy would cover the primary, secondary, tertiary, VET and industry sectors, with the aim of increasing participation in STEM and improving career pathways and industry outcomes, in line with the values of diversity and equity, says the plan.

“Given the growth we have seen over the past decade [in the space industry], and as we also know, education is one of Australia’s biggest exports and it’s something that we’re really, really well known for, so we have an opportunity to capitalize on that and build on that reputation, and provide world-class training in Australian space science to nurture the space industry,” said Imogen Rea, Systems Engineer at Rocket Lab.

When it comes to developing space skills, one of the disappointing issues for Menk is the lack of Australian-focused teaching materials readily available to schools.

“There are elements of space in the school curriculum, and teachers go to NASA to find resources for their teaching, but that totally ignores the Australian context. What we need is ready-to-use material. employment for teachers and students in the Australian context”, mentioned.

Phinn said that issue would soon be addressed with the release of what he described as a comprehensive set of Earth observation science resources compiled by Australian authors over three years.

“This will be the first time that we will have a set of resources that is used in universities at the moment, but it can also be used in high schools. It builds on work that was done initially in the 1980s in CSIRO,” he said.

“We are starting to produce this type of material that will engage with the education systems in Australia to bring people in and have Australian content rather than northern hemisphere content.”

In a bid to develop skills with consideration for diversity and inclusion, Rea pointed out that the plan recommends the appointment of a diversity and inclusion manager at the Australian Space Agency.

“It’s really just to get to the bottom of the different issues that exist in space science that may not exist in other fields, and really make that a priority, separate from women like STEM Ambassador or Chief Scientist ,” Rea mentioned.

She also believes that part of the solution is to change people’s perception of the accessibility of participating in the space sector.

“To change people’s perspective that space is for everyone, I think it’s really important for people to come forward, whether it’s through STEM superstars, or whether there’s a variety of other women in STEM and various people in STEM activities, to really get out there and show people that they can be involved because it’s really hard to be what you can’t see,” said Rae told ZDNet.

Other recommendations of the plan include the creation of a senior scientist within the Australian Space Agency, space science as a national research priority, and commitment and investment in an ongoing national space program.

The decade-long plan echoes the 38 recommendations made recently by the Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources, following the conclusion of its investigation into the development of the space industry Australian.