Saturday, June 1, 2013

Cost in space: funding halt leaves satellites up in air

Australian engineers have designed a satellite system that can map the water content of soil across the entire continent every three days.

But it may never be deployed in Australia because the federal government does not support building, launching or owning its own satellites.

Engineers from the Australian centre for space engineering research at the University of NSW designed a pair of Earth observation satellites, one to fly over the country every three days, that use sophisticated radar technology.

The director of the centre, Andrew Dempster, said the satellites' soil moisture measurements could be used by agriculture, conservationists, meteorologists and climate scientists.

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''Across Australia there are some places that will get dryer and wetter as a result of climate change,'' Professor Dempster said. ''It would be useful to start putting numbers against those trends.''

The satellites can also measure forest biomass for carbon accounting.

Professor Dempster's centre was awarded $4.6 million in 2010 to design the satellite system as part of a $40 million space research program established by the Rudd government.

The team, along with 13 other groups, must submit its technical report to the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research next month.

But Professor Dempster said the future of his team's design was unclear because it was difficult to find funding for the next phase of the project.

He estimated the satellite system would cost $800 million over 10 to 15 years to develop, launch, and run for eight years.

''That's 2 per cent of the total cost of the [national broadband network],'' he said. The group is lobbying federal and state governments for funding.

While many local industries require satellites for activities such as weather forecasting, communications and environmental monitoring, Australia does not own or operate any Earth observation satellites.

It relies on countries such as the US and Japan to share their data, which will be worth $4 billion a year to the economy by 2015.

Australia is the only Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country without a space agency.

After five years of negotiations, the government released the country's first space policy, the satellite utilisation policy, in April, which did not support the country developing its own satellite launch capabilities.

A department spokesman said the policy encouraged collaboration between research groups and private space organisations to develop niche technologies, such as the University of NSW's satellite system.

A former chairman of the Space Industry Association of Australia, Brett Biddington, said there was no financial advantage for Australia to deploy its own satellites because the service provided by other countries was sufficient. When those arrangements no longer met the country's needs, which he predicted may occur in the next decade, the government would need to invest in its own satellites.

Mr Biddington said the role of a space agency was being filled by the Innovation Department's space co-ordination office, which was successfully guiding Australia's space activities with the rest of the world.

The chairman of the Australian Academy of Science's committee for space science, Russell Boyce, said while the space research program had built local talent and resulted in some impressive projects there was a danger its momentum would be lost.

But he said it was not possible for a small country such as Australia to develop its own space infrastructure. ''Some things we do very well, like developing sensors or instruments that go onto satellites, other things we need to partner with other countries,'' Professor Boyce said.


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