There’s a new space race under way, and this time around, national prestige has taken a backseat to private innovation.
WRITER: Dan Lander
PHOTOGRAPHER: David Solm
Fuelled by an explosion of start-ups, the global space industry is evolving from exploration to innovation. Driven by young, progressive researchers and entrepreneurs, this new space demands innovation, creative thought, and distinct support structures to enable disruptive ideas.
THE WAY FORWARD
UniSA’s Space Incubator Program is one such support mechanism designed to help space start-ups. Providing seed funding, development, and strategy advice, the program supports founders with the essential business skills to successfully start and lead space ventures.
Most likely, sometime in the next couple of decades, some breathtakingly fortunate woman or man will be the first to set foot on Mars. While it’s not a nailed-on certainty, key stakeholders worldwide share an almost unanimous belief that the pre-eminent dream of sci-fi fantasists now floats tantalisingly close to realisation, and that has recently reawakened the public’s lust for space exploration.
As remarkable as a Mars landing may be, however, in many ways the journey to get there could be more exciting than the actual destination. Mars is no El Dorado, no exotic paradise of untold riches—it remains a largely unknown quantity, and an inhospitable one at that. But the final push to transform humankind into a genuinely space-faring race may already be generating the most disruptive, lucrative industry we have ever known—space is now open for business, and business, it appears, could be very good.
A Down to Earth Market
The global space industry is growing at a rate of 9.5 per cent per year, almost four times faster than the world economy. Space-related activity is worth around $350 billion today, but the Bank of America Merrill Lynch has tipped that the industry will generate at
least $2.7 trillion within 30 years, an eight-fold increase.
Growth, both current and projected, is being fuelled by an explosion of start-ups around the world, and while it may be the inter-planetary ambitions of big players like Elon Musk garnering all the headlines, the wider boom is in monetising new ways to make space work for the folk down on Earth.
So much of what we now take for granted, from GPS to mobile communications to the morning weather report, depends on orbital infrastructure, and with technology improving and costs shrinking, new possibilities are blossoming.
“We are so connected to space, in ways we don’t even realise,” says Jasmine Vreugdenburg, Manager of the University of South Australia’s Innovation & Collaboration Centre (ICC).
“From low orbiting satellites used for telecommunications, to Elon Musk’s prototype satellites that are aiming to beam the internet across the world, the engagement we have with space is truly incredible.
“We're only just realising the opportunities that the SPACE industry presents—and the scope is phenomenal.”
“We’re talking everything from commercial rocket launch services, obviously, but also new applications using earth observation data, manufacturing in space and even mining asteroids.”
With much of this innovation being driven by young, progressive researchers and entrepreneurs, growth in the space business is riding a profoundly disruptive wave—not just new ideas, but lots of new faces too. And, as Airbus’s Space Systems Development Director, James Hinds, told the South Australia Space Forum in April, the impact is substantial.
“New space is evolving away from the classical lines,” Hinds said. “There’s still great excitement about exploration, but industry and society are not looking at space like another great Apollo scheme, they’re actually looking at it as a service.
“How can space make people’s day-to-day lives better?”
The Learning Curve
It’s not only the established space industry heavyweights taking note of this industrial evolution—government operations around the world are also paying close attention.
Internationally, NASA and the European Space Agency have flung open the door to collaboration with entrepreneurs from SpaceX to Queensland rocket company Gilmour Space Technologies. And while many details of Australia’s own forthcoming space agency
are still to be confirmed, key bodies such as the CSIRO and the Defence Science and Technology Group have indicated firmly that their future lies in partnership with the best and brightest new space enterprises.
The South Australian Government has made a long-term commitment to the space industry, opening the South Australian Space Industry Centre (SASIC) and establishing a formal space portfolio, with the new Premier Steven Marshall announcing at the SA Space Forum that he would be serving as Space Industries Minister himself.
“I am taking on the space portfolio, and one of my highest priority issues is regarding the Australian space agency and lobbying as hard as I can for South Australia to play a lead role in that development,” the Premier said.
The SA Government has also provided a $4 million, four-year fund through SASIC, which will see UniSA collaborate with the International Space University and a global accelerator partner to deliver a space industry development program. The first stage of the program will operate through UniSA’s Innovation & Collaboration Centre, and as Vreugdenburg notes, is designed to answer one of the biggest challenges facing most start-ups: how to turn a great idea into a successful business.
“The University of South Australia already has a long association with space research,
and we currently deliver a space industry course in conjunction with the International Space University (ISU).
“But our new Space Incubator Program is about providing young engineers and scientists and other innovators with direct, focused guidance in building a viable business around their ideas.”
A Circle of Knowledge
Commencing in September this year, the ICC’s six-month Venture Catalyst Space Incubator Program will deliver topics on leading a growth business, understanding the opportunity and market, and product management, build and release.
While leading academics will feature in the program, there is also a key role for industry mentors, who will provide practical, experience-based guidance and support. South Australia already boasts a burgeoning space start-up culture—including Neumann Space and Fleet Space, that are some of the industry leaders, and Myriota, which developed out of research that came from UniSA’s Institute of Telecommunications—and exposure to this environment will be one of the highlights of the program.
“Existing start-ups will be key in helping new start-ups through the program,” Vreugdenburg says. “Start-ups are aware of what you can and can’t do in this industry—from navigating the regulations to understanding some of the unique technical challenges they can face—and that will be a key understanding to deliver back to our new companies.”
Cosmic Ideas, Local Gains
While there has been plenty of excitement about the potential presented by a new Australian space agency, the savviest expectations have been tempered—we will not be creating NASA Down Under, nor leading a mission to Mars. The more realistic hopes are that the agency will better co-ordinate our existing capabilities and help foster niche innovations that can be taken to a world market. In the newly fluid and co-operative global space industry, Australia doesn’t need to be able to do it all, it just needs to be the best at those things it does do.
“For local start-ups, understanding how to take advantage of the new opportunities, such as
testing and deployment in space, will be important,” Vreugdenburg says. “If you can harness that, there’s a lot of potential in this industry, now and going forward.”
One of the increasingly apparent features of that potential is that any benefits extend well beyond the space industry. The same technological innovations that are transforming our orbital infrastructure, from extreme data processing to high precision sensors, are having a ripple effect across a whole range of different sectors, providing diverse opportunities for switched-on companies.
“Businesses are not looking to invest in the next rocket necessarily, but all the underlying technologies and services that support the space industry,” Vreugdenburg says.
“New space and the commercialisation of new technologies are creating a massive new industry. And being a part of this, and seeing just how these new technologies extend from one industry to engage with many others, is extremely exciting.”
Given that, in the last year alone, more than $52 million of investment has been committed to South Australia’s space industry through a combination of venture capital, universities, local industry and government, it’s clear that getting involved with what’s going on off-planet is a great way to boost what’s happening back on Earth.
And, with both public and private sectors demonstrating a rare degree of synergy in the current space industry, perhaps it’s finally reasonable to start looking forward to a future among the stars.
- South Australian Space Industry Centre (SASIC)
- European Space Agency
- Gilmour Space Technologies
- Defence Science and Technology Group
- SA Space Forum
- Neumann Space
- Fleet Space
- Start me up (6.6mb)
- Our Place in Space (4.4mb)
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