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Defence embraces the space domain

Photo representation of Artist's impression of the M2 Pathfinder, or CubeSat, satellite in orbit over the earth
Artist's impression of the M2 Pathfinder, or CubeSat, satellite in orbit over the earth.

Space is becoming an increasingly congested and contested environment. Defence recognises the importance of this environment as both an essential enabler of military operations and a warfighting domain in its own right.

Air Force has been designated as the Domain Lead and is responsible for coordinating Defence’s space activities and integrating space effects across all operational domains.

This role will be critical as Defence transitions from being a space ‘user’ to being a space ‘contributor’.

Over the next decade, Defence will invest $7 billion in sovereign space capabilities. This investment will be across all aspects of space, including assured position, navigation and timing information in a contested environment; upgrades and support to existing and future satellite communications systems, including communications satellites and ground control stations that will be under sovereign Australian control; Space Domain Awareness capabilities that will enable better tracking and identification of space objects and threats; and capabilities to assure Australian access to critical space missions.

Space is already keeping Defence very busy. The M2 Pathfinder Satellite (pictured), a collaboration between Air Force and UNSW Canberra, was launched on 13 June 2020 from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula. M2 Pathfinder is a type of small satellite, around the size of a loaf of bread, known as a CubeSat. It allows high-technology capabilities to be tested in space at a lower cost than larger (typically fridge sized) satellites. The M2 Pathfinder space mission will test communications architecture and other technologies that, with ongoing Defence collaboration, will inform future Australian Defence Force capability design. It has already enabled UNSW Canberra to develop space courses and programs to benefit Defence personnel.

The new Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) in Western Australia achieved the significant milestone ‘first light’, meaning the completion of calibration to allow the first images of objects in orbit to be seen using the telescope. Once it is operational, the SST will join the C-Band radar as a jointly operated US–Australian capability providing object information to the global Space Surveillance Network (SSN). The C-Band radar has been contributing to the SSN since 2015, supporting a variety of missions including the first manned SpaceX launch to the International Space Station in May 2020.

Since late 2019, Defence has been using its new commercial imagery satellite infrastructure, which allows the Australian Geospatial-Intelligence Organisation to send tasking commands and receive imagery directly from satellites in orbit. The network of antennas is controlled remotely from an operations centre at RAAF Base Edinburgh.

Complementing these new capabilities, the Defence Innovation Hub has invested over $16.5 million in space domain technologies over the last 24 months, and Defence continues to invest in the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre as a foundation partner. These early investments in Australian technology advancement are critical to building the foundation of the Australian space industry and Defence’s space capability.

Space-based capabilities are integral to modern life in Australia and are an indispensable component of Australian and allied military power. Space is hard, but continued investments in sovereign capabilities will help us reach for the stars.