There was a time when Australia stood proud as a pioneer of orbital spaceflight. The successful orbital flight of WRESAT made the country only the fourth - after the USSR, USA and France - to design and build a satellite for launch from its own territory.
Sadly for Australian spaceflight visionaries, WRESAT - named for its builder, the Australian Weapons Research Establishment - flew from the Woomera test range north-west of Adelaide aboard a modified American Redstone rocket in 1967. The mission successfully completed 642 polar orbits before burning up on re-entry, but remains the country's sole launch.
Since then, the country's involvement in space science and industry has "drifted and the sense of purpose has been lost", according to a 2008 Australian Senate report.
Now, the government hopes to join the space age with a more coherent vision. In early May the second round of the four-year, A$40 million ($36 million) Australian Space Research Programme (ASRP), part of a four-year, A$46.8 million Australian Space Science Programme, concluded. The programme also created a dedicated Space Policy Unit within the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, to act as the central point of contact for the country's national and international civil space activities.
The government also recently established the Space Industry Innovation Council - comprising representatives from the space science research, industry and government - to provide strategic advice on innovation priorities to government, champion innovation in the space sector and build connections with other organisations.
The renewed focus on space is part of government efforts for the country to secure some of the $250 billion annually generated by the global space industry.
The moves were spurred by the 2008 Senate report, which found the Australian space industry to be fragmented, with a lack of clarity in organisation and shortage of cash. That report concluded the greatest space opportunity for Australia is in "looking down" to use satellites for Earth observation, as well as for communications and navigation.
Recommendations included establishing a unit to co-ordinate the country's space activities, work towards establishing a space agency, become more closely linked to international space agencies and reduce Australia's reliance on other countries in space technology.
The ASRP is intended to support space-related research, education and innovation activities, with two streams of grants - Space Education Development grants and Space Science and Innovation Project grants - ranging from A$200,000 to A$5 million. The Space Science and Innovation Projects should support the development of Australia's niche capability in areas of strategic national priority, with international collaboration encouraged.
The second round of the programme closed on 6 May, with applications due to be evaluated over several months, says Dr Michael Green of the Space Policy Unit.
As well as overseeing the ASRP and providing advice to the government on civil space matters, the unit has also started work on the development of a National Space Policy, and will present its advice to the government on the issue at the end of this year, says Dr Green.
The policy will cover civil and defence matters and may address how Australia uses space to tackle climate change, weather forecasting, natural resource management, forestry and agriculture, disaster management, national security, communications, Earth observation and remote sensing, position navigation and timing applications. The policy will also detail Australia's engagement and participation on the global stage, says the unit.
The unit is also talking to space agencies around the world with a view to increasing international co-operative activities. For example, Australia is currently working with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to provide re-entry and recovery support for JAXA's Hayabusa spacecraft, which is due to land in June 2010 at the Woomera Prohibited Area after completion of its mission to return to Earth material from an asteroid.
WPA is managed by the Australian Department of Defence and is the largest land-based test range in the world, measuring 127,000km².
Source: Flight International