Space race could see Australia get dedicated space ambassador

In China, interest is growing in having the first Mars base. Picture: Getty Images
In China, interest is growing in having the first Mars base. Picture: Getty Images

Australia needs a dedicated space ambassador and more space literate public servants capable of recognising smart policy opportunities in the new space race, says a report from the National Security College.

Major powers, including China, Russia and the United States, have rejected the strategic restraint that kept space a stable political and military domain, says Dr Cassandra Steer, the author of the policy paper from the ANU-based college.

As a middle space power, Australia can influence responsible behaviour in the "operational domain" of space, she says, a critical dependency due the role of satellites Australian life.

"If we were to lose space even for a day the impacts would be catastrophic," Dr Steer notes.

Leaders need to tread lightly and prudently, she says, and Defence should resist US-efforts to imply that space is a "warfighting domain", language that runs counter to agreements made by the Australian government to ensure space is a neutral domain of peace.

"Geopolitics are playing out in space as they are on Earth," says Dr Steer, as countries are in competition to form partnerships for space collaboration. "It's part of the currency of 21st century politics."

Australia should not risk sending signals to China by adopting the provocative language used by the US Space Force, Dr Steer says. Such signals would suggest Australia is ready to take a conflict to space.

However, diplomats and policy experts needed to ensure Australia is part of a peaceful gold rush in space are severely under-resourced. This is leaving Australia out in the cold and unrecognised for its existing body of work, Dr Steer notes.

The Australian Space Agency aims to create 20,000 industry jobs, but there are currently no plans for government to expand its public service capability that would foster opportunities for Australians.

Government needs space literacy in more than just its diplomats, in portfolios ranging from Attorney-General, Education, Industry, Home Affairs and Defence, Dr Steer says.

"Right now there's reliance on the handful of people with expertise who are scattered across government, rather than ensuring that there is a much greater degree of understanding across governments at all levels."

The piecemeal approach to space in government has led to some Australian agencies considering commercial interests, but not geopolitical or security interests. Others prepare space risk assessments but do not share them.

Dr Steer is arguing for a whole-of-government approach given similar importance as cyber across the machinery of government, and ensure training equips officials with the literacy to understand how the issues connect.

An expertise build-up in Commonwealth agencies could also see Canberra becoming the national space capital.

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Australia's position in space is unique internationally, Dr Steer adds, as signatories to original moon agreements, attesting that nobody can own anything in space, and also the NASA Artemis accords last year, creating a conundrum.

"That one says we think mining resources in space is fine - so the AG's department and DFAT are very busy with these questions right now and seeking answers."

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This story Report calls for dedicated space ambassador first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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