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Australian Government aiming to lower red tape barriers to space sector

The federal government will use a review of Australian space legislation to ensure that private sector activity is not being held back, according to a just-released issues paper. The issues paper coincides with the start of the public consultation phase of the review, which will run until the end of April.

The review was first launched in October last year by minister for industry, innovation and science, Christopher Pyne. An early government consultation phase has now been completed, with space law expert Steven Freeland to oversee the next stage of the review and advise the government.

The issues paper sets out a number of considerations that the government plans to address, including:

• The effectiveness of the current act in supporting innovation in space technologies

• The investment environment to support commercial activities  

• Responsibilities the government should have in managing space activities

• Key emerging issues that need to be addressed in Australian civil space

• And how the current act aligns with other domestic and international legislation

The current Space Activities Act (1998) was formulated at a time when several private sector groups were proposing to build and operate commercial rocket launch facilities in Australia, with an expectation that at least one of the projects was likely to proceed . While that never happened, the government is now keen to tap into the current global activity around smaller satellites and innovation.  

“For a variety of reasons, the anticipated commercial launch industry has not eventuated. Since that time, the environment has been shifting from a total reliance on public money to support space launches, to a growing interest from private investors who recognise the potential for commercial returns from space activities,” the issues paper noted. It also stated that there is significant potential for space technologies to play a role in facilitating the transition from declining traditional manufacturing to an economy that commercialises innovative technologies.

However, it says the regulatory environment needs to be appropriately conducive to private investment in the space sector.

“Emerging technologies, in particular the advent of small satellites, has opened the space market to small enterprises and research institutions and has stimulated an influx of activity worldwide,” the paper noted. “The Australian Government has recognised the importance of ensuring that Australian entities are in a position to take advantage of new commercial opportunities and that our civil space regulation is not inhibiting innovation and investment in this area.”

The paper also recognises that any legislative changes must be balanced against Australia's obligations under five principal UN space treaties. However it notes that since the last of these treaties was negotiated in the late 1970s, the UN and the global space community has moved away from binding treaties towards so-called “soft-law” mechanisms, such as codes of conduct.

SPACE JUNK: One of the key issues identified in the consultation paper is the proliferation of space objects from the growing use of low-earth orbit and other smaller satellites. It noted that there are a diversity of views within the international community about how emerging technologies should be managed in order to ensure the sustainable use of the space environment.

“Small satellites have a relatively short life and there is a risk that, without appropriate controls around end-of-life disposal, these objects may significantly increase the problems associated with space debris,” the report noted. The Australian government has already budgeted A$19.8 million in funding through to June 2019 for the Cooperative Research Centre for Space Environment Management in this area. The centre is a collaborative venture between government agencies, universities and space industry professionals from Australia, the US and Japan.

The federal government has also made space and satellite technology a key focus in the defence sector. In last week's defence whitepaper, the government stated priority will be given to strengthening the resilience and redundancy of satellite-based communications and noted a spending boost for the defence space sector.

Following the current public consultation and analysis phase, the department of industry, innovation and science will present options for government deliberation. The issue paper said this could include no change to current arrangements, amendment to the current legislation, or the development of new legislation.

Geoff Long, Commsday