With the global space industry set to potentially grow to in excess of US$1 trillion by 2040, Australia already has ambitious plans to carve out a slice. Until recently, government-funded programs dominated the space industry, with venture capital and other private funding only having increased in recent years. The focus in funded projects is now shifting from the satellite and earth orbit, the “space-for-earth” economy, to lunar and beyond projects, the “space-for-space” economy.
A space-for-space economy would see space resources extracted, processed, and used in space. In growing the space industry, and building the space-for-space economy both in Australia and globally, it is essential that it be done in such a way that while exploring space and sending humans back to the Moon, Mars and beyond, the potential benefits to earth sustainability and security are also considered.
Through the creation of the Australian Space Agency in 2018, the country’s strategy and focus are centred on “space assets and infrastructure” as detailed by a series of roadmaps. While Australia’s current space activities may be small in comparison to those of other nations, Australia has the potential to become a leader in the areas of space assets and infrastructure, as well as space resources. The extent of the country’s future contribution to these areas largely depends on how well it can leverage existing industry, such as in the resources sector, and facilitate new industry through entrepreneurship and start-ups.
Australia’s future space contributions could include building rovers to carry out industrial tasks on the Moon, and assistance with the extraction and use of space resources, which will be of high importance to any lunar mission and has the potential to contribute towards wider sustainability advances here on Earth. As humanity approaches environmental tipping points, a few of which have already likely been exceeded, certain efforts are reducing emissions and increasing sustainability. While the environmental cost of space exploration needs to be addressed, space technology – in particular remote data sensing as well as space resource extraction, processing and utilisation technologies – can help increase sustainability on Earth.
The technology to create and maintain durable, autonomous and long-lasting machines that will be required on the Moon would also be beneficial, potentially leading to advances in energy systems, manufacturing techniques and efficiencies that could help lower emissions and environmental lifecycle costs in the resources industry here on Earth. Developments in remote sensing technologies can assist us to better measure, monitor and understand earth systems such as water cycles and forest cover.
Development of space technology and manufacturing techniques such that can shift industry and manufacturing off Earth and to orbit would be advantageous, and is possible, as is the eventual mining of asteroids for resources. Furthermore, the advances in space agriculture that will be necessary to support large colonies and bases on the Moon and Mars will be transferable to Earth to build greater efficiency and resilience into agricultural systems while increasing agricultural yield.
Recent years have seen geopolitical tensions rise, something that will only continue as a result of the increasing impacts of climate change such as drought and extreme weather events. The growing space industry provides an opportunity to reduce tensions through the global cooperation that will be required to produce good governance of space activities, developed through wide consultation and agreed by nations. Through implementation of these processes, collaboration to achieve Moon landings, Mars bases and ways to extract and use space resources is possible, and a pathway to reducing geopolitical tensions is apparent. However, if governance can neither be agreed upon nor enforced, then space exploration could significantly increase competition and geopolitical tensions between nations. There are early indications of this being the case, with tensions emerging over who owns the Moon, and Russia recently announcing that it will leave the International Space Station after 2024. Despite this, we are still in the early phase of the space-for-space economy, and the opportunity for cooperation, collaboration and the peaceful use of space still exists.
This phase calls for governments to work closely with industry, academia and other stakeholders, and for international organisations and corporations to ensure that agreed governance exists, innovation is encouraged, and the barrier to entry is as low as possible for the space industry. Doing this can ensure that not only will humans find a place on the Moon, on Mars, and beyond, but also have the chance to make the most of opportunities here on Earth through the interconnected domains of space, sustainability and security.