05/01/2017 9:38 AM AEDT | Updated 05/01/2017 9:39 AM AEDT

Space Is No Longer The Final Frontier For Aussies

We're back in the space race.

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December was somewhat of a turning point for this fledgling industry.

For decades, Australia has been left behind in the space race.

With no dedicated launch facility, nor a dedicated government space agency, Australia has looked on as overseas multinational companies and governments have dominated space-related travel and commercial opportunities.

Now, a group of innovators based in and around Sydney are helping Australia back into the space industry, as part of a growing movement to "democratise" space and open it up to everyday entrepreneurs and enthusiasts.

The month of December proved to be something of a turning point for this fledgling industry.

On December 10, Sydney-based company Cuberider helped launch Australia's first payload to the International Space Station. The lift-off carried experiments designed by 1,000 students. Cuberider is founded by two 23-year-old Sydney university students.

On 19 December, another Sydney-based company had its satellite operations software certified by an international space advocacy body. Saber Astronautics, which is based in Chippendale in Sydney's inner-west and Colorado in the United States, has developed an early version of software which allows a person to plan a satellite mission and then operate this satellite while in space.

This software has now been certified by the Space Foundation, a 33-year-old organisation based in the United States which seeks to advocate and promote space-related endeavours. The Space Foundation described the software as "a uniquely ingenious product, combining space technology and elements of education".

At this stage, the early version of the software launched in September 2016 is largely limited to allowing someone to work out where, and how, to fly their satellite, before getting a live feed from the satellite in space. This live feed can help with identifying space weather and radiation and problems with the craft.

In the near future, it is hoped that the software will be able to guide the satellite's movements while in space.

Opening up space to small businesses and enthusiasts

Saber CEO Dr Jason Held said that launching and operating a satellite is already becoming a more affordable option for entrepreneurs, enthusiasts and students.

"I know of commercial satellites launched into space which have been funded for less than $150,000 on a crowd-funding campaign," he said. "To put that into perspective, that's half the cost of a juice bar franchise."

Low-cost satellites, he said, are being used by entrepreneurs to deliver broad-scale imagery to assist the agriculture and mining industry and to help professional services firms such as land valuers and financiers.

There is also the potential for satellites to play a role in the "internet of things" industry by helping to connect and track devices and objects -- particularly where there is no or limited mobile reception.

"If you can't get cell phone reception, then what are you going to use?" he said. "For this reason, there is no question that the data highway of the 21st century is space."

The issue, according to Dr Held, is that while it is getting cheaper to launch satellites, it is still proving difficult to operate them while in space.

"The 'do-it-yourself' movement often do well with developing the satellite but can struggle with the outdated operational tools, many of which are text based and hard to learn," he said.

That's where Saber's software comes in, by using video game style technology to allow people to plan, track and, in the future control, their satellite.

"Our aim is the democratisation of space, where anyone, regardless of background, can bring their innovation, ideas, and talent to market," he said.

The Australian space industry

Saber is part of the growing, and somewhat unlikely, Australian space industry. In the 1950s and '60s, Australia was regarded as a space industry leader, alongside the United States and Russia. In fact, during this era, students from Melbourne even launched a low-earth orbit satellite and European-built rockets were tested in South Australia.

However, the early potential quickly faded. Until recently, Australia has been regarded as a space industry laggard with no launch facilities nor a dedicated space agency. A group of enthusiastic startup companies and students are now ignoring the government policy and funding vacuum to deal Australia back into the space race.

Dr Held said in the order of 30 new companies involved in satellite technology have been founded in Australia in the past two years, which compares favourably to the 100 or so similar companies in the United States.

"I think Australia also has a larger proportion of space companies as part of our start-up community, compared to other hubs around the world such as California, New York, London or Tel Aviv," he said.

"What's more, our industry I think is growing faster than these other hubs."

Dr Held said that the Australian civil space industry is mainly focussed on Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne, with Canberra and Adelaide having the strongest defence space focus.

Saber is one of the founding members, along with the Universities of NSW and Sydney, of the Delta-V space industry alliance which is seeking to grow the Australian space industry.

One active participant in this alliance is Andreas Antoniades, who this year formed his company Obelisk Systems which is based at Maitland in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney. His company produces hardware to insert into Cubesats, which are small miniaturised satellites, usually no more than 1.3kg in weight. It also developed the original 'Asimov' educational modules, and helped with preliminary mission development, for Cuberider.

Antoniades finished his electrical engineering and business degree at the University of Newcastle in 2015. He said he was attracted to the space industry for the same reasons as Dr Held -- to try to make it more accessible to amateurs and innovators.

"Back in 2013, I was frustrated that you couldn't get into space for less than $250,000 and therefore wrote my thesis on affordable space hardware," he said.

He said the space industry in Australia is now "phenomenally upbeat", despite the lack of formal government support.

"Space is an inspirational field, every time you mention space to anyone they get excited," he said.

"It is the space industry in Australia which is now producing the necessary infrastructure and proving the business model -- we are not waiting for government validation."

Antoniades said one big benefit of space-related entrepreneurship is that it tends to produce innovations which benefit the broader economy. He cited the role that GPS technology -- developed in the 1990s from a network of satellites -- now plays in our daily lives.

Antoniades said he benefits from being close to advanced manufacturing facilities and a strong innovation community in Newcastle, along with having far lower business costs compared to Sydney.