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Protecting national safety is critical for Australia’s emerging space launch capability

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15 September 2020

Photograph of Dr Megan Clark

Dr Megan Clark AC, Head, Australian Space Agency

The Australian Space Agency (the Agency) has identified access to space as one of the seven National Civil Space Priorities in the 10-year plan, Advancing Space, the Australian Civil Space Strategy 2019-2028.

As the Australian space industry and the Agency work to achieve this aim we must also ensure the safety of all.

If Australia is to take its place as a respected space-faring nation it must be a responsible citizen in space.

Australia has a heritage in space activities. The Long Tom rocket was Australia’s first successful sounding rocket in the late 1950’s and reached space on several launches, crossing the Karman Line which for some is considered the boundary for space at 100 km. Pieces of the first Long Tom to reach 100km are displayed at the Australian Space Agency headquarters at Lot Fourteen in Adelaide.

There are exciting emerging opportunities for Australia to leverage international space missions and commercial launch activities from Australian territory. Protecting national safety and security and meeting Australia’s international and national obligations will be essential elements of a successful domestic civil launch capability. 

This means being safe on Earth, safe getting into space, safe in space and getting back home safely to Earth.  Space is hazardous. In testing new capabilities failures can be expected. However, it is important that effective safety systems are in place that allow for failure in a safe environment. This calls on the very best capability, technology and innovation to come together to meet the challenges and rigors of space activities. It means being trusted by our international partners to meet our commitments, which will be achieved by being safe and secure.

Recently the Agency updated Australia’s space legislation to meet the needs of Australia’s growing industry with a regulatory environment that balances safety and an entrepreneurial spirit. This includes the passage of the Space (Launches and Returns) Amendment Act 2018, in consultation with the sector, including on the associated framework. There are not only Australian obligations. We have multilateral and sometimes bilateral commitments with each launch and return. Launching a space object activates certain international obligations, and includes potential liability for the Commonwealth of Australia.  

The Agency is the responsible Commonwealth entity that regulates space activities that go beyond 100 km above mean sea level, or involve high power rockets.  Space launches occurring require approval under the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 (the Act) and its associated framework.

This legislation is in place to ensure public safety and security. It requires detailed information, such as rocket flight paths, emergency management plans and security arrangements.

Establishing a domestic civil launch capability will bring with it significant spin-off benefits including new jobs and manufacturing opportunities for rocket components and payloads.  It is important we lay the groundwork carefully. The Agency is committed to working with industry on their proposals and licence applications. Our legislation is clear, our rules are clear. I hold firm on making sure we’re safe and responsible. This is a serious issue for public safety and the environment.

To ensure the risks and hazards that are inherent in space launch have the appropriate controls in place, it can take six months to assess a complex rocket launch application when that application is complete. The onus is on industry to make sure applications for launch licences meet the requirements of the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018. To assist our emerging launch industry, when a company has submitted its first complex application and that documentation is incomplete, the Agency has committed to provide a one-off gap analysis to assist them to address the deficiencies. We are clear in our responsibilities. It is the responsibility of the industry to make sure  proposals are submitted that meet the requirements of the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 and its associated framework.

Australia can build on its heritage in space activities. If we work together on our safety we’ll set the right framework for generations to come. The Agency is committed to building a safe and responsible future civil rocket launch capability that inspires and instils pride in all Australians.

Dr Megan Clark AC

Head, Australian Space Agency

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