Australia's self-sufficient satellite strategy, the Norfolk Island cannabis row and the world's first shark sanctuary.
Australia became the fourth nation to successfully launch a satellite from its own soil in 1967. Since then, its space strategy has become increasingly dependent on the hardware of foreign allies. It is now one of only three nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (oecd) without a space agency. The country does have two small federal offices that oversee its efforts in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, though they focus purely on space-related policy administration.
Engineers from the University of New South Wales have expressed concern about the lack of funding and foresight within these bureaucracies. “Nobody is looking at what space assets Australia needs to tackle its own unique problems,” says Professor Andrew Dempster, director of unsw’s Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research. “Monitoring things like the effects of climate change and soil moisture cannot be done using other people’s satellites.”
The government maintains that its co-operative arrangements satisfy its requirements for space-derived information. But Dr Malcolm Davis, assistant professor of international relations at Bond University in Queensland, argues that the country’s dependence on US-owned satellites has become a military vulnerability. “It assumes that the Americans are always going to be there for us,” says Davis, who used to advise the Australian Department of Defence.
Davis claims that creating an agency with a 21st-century business model, which focuses on low-cost satellites that serve niche purposes, would increase the Australian defence force’s self-sufficiency and facilitate a lucrative national space industry.
The state government of New South Wales is already trying to kick-start this sector. In March it helped launch Delta-V, Australia’s first space-industry start-up accelerator. However, Dempster says the future of private players is still heavily linked to federal leadership. “When the mining bubble bursts we need to be thinking about these hi-tech industries,” he says. “Australia can’t afford not to have a space agency to lead that discussion.”
A battle is brewing in the South Pacific between the governments of Australia and tiny territory Norfolk Island, around 1,400km off the country’s east coast, over the smaller island’s plans for medical-grade cannabis cultivation.
Known for its native pines and pristine reefs, Norfolk Island has suffered a tourism decline in recent years and now relies on Australia for financial support. This year Norfolk Island’s local government made a potentially lucrative deal with Tasman Health Cannabinoids to establish a medical cannabis industry there, with plans to export to Canada. Using its Commonwealth control, Australia quickly overturned the agreement and now Norfolk Island health minister Robin Adams is lobbying to reverse the veto. “Norfolk Island is in need of tremendous economic stimulus and we see this as the answer to our prayers,” she says.
Palau, the Micronesian island whose 630,000 sq km exclusive economic zone is also the world’s first shark sanctuary, is on the cusp of upping its conservation effort even further with a potential ban on all commercial fishing within the reserve.
The plan, led by Palauan president Tommy Remengesau Jr, would mean losing the annual $5m (€3.8m) that the nation receives from allowing foreign boats to fish in its waters (an area roughly the size of France). Policing the ban will be a challenge but the answer may lie in aerial drones and Liquid Robotics, a Californian start-up making floating robots able to spot illegal vessels from 25km.