By Christian Thaler-Wolski
This blog post will give you an overview of activities in Spacetech in South Australia and interstate as well as some general technology and investment trends.
This article is intended for the general public, no experience in aerospace is needed.
There is a flurry of activity in the space industry in Adelaide. There is the 11th Australian Space Forum (an actual real life, in-person event with 700 or so attendees!), the Space Discovery Centre is opening and a number of adjacent activities are taking place. Recently, four Australian satellites were launched into orbit from New Zealand. To celebrate all this, Startup Adelaide Inc. is publishing this guide on Space in Adelaide.
Just like any other area, aerospace has seen its share of disruption by new technologies and entrepreneurship fuelled by venture capital. Elon Musk and SpaceX are probably its best examples but there are many other space entrepreneurs. A good resource on this trend is this webpage: https://techcrunch.com/space/. Sometimes this phenomenon is referred to as NewSpace, as opposed to “OldSpace” which is/was dominated by big government projects but not everyone likes these terms.
There are multiple, separate but converging trends increasingly affecting Spacetech:
- COTS. General trend of technology becoming cheaper and often “commercial-off-the-shelf” in highly complex systems and subsystems engineering.
- Modern Manufacturing. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) is becoming space-capable, for example by being used in rocket bodies (sometimes reusable rockets)
- Miniaturisation. General trends of miniaturisation, which has led to cube shaped nano satellites being sometimes only 10x10x10 cm in size. There are entrepreneurs aiming to launch constellations of many dozens or even hundreds of those shoebox sized CubeSats focused on earth observation or IoT communications.
- Deregulation. Most countries in the world have opened their space industry to entrepreneurship and private capital or the government contracting with private vendors.
- Ambition paired with the desire for sovereign capability. Many countries couldn’t afford to be “space countries” or “launch countries” decades ago. Now, many new space countries like Singapore or the Philippines are emerging. The best example is probably New Zealand who have gone from establishing their space agency to actually frequently launching rockets in less than 5 years.
The following space-based applications are now within the reach of private entrepreneurship:
1. In-orbit satellite logistics like last mile transportation, maintenance or refueling
2. A private permanent moon habitat and Space farming – feeding future Moon or Mars colonies
3. Manufacturing in microgravity for perfect mixing of alloys or growing crystals for pharmaceuticals that can’t be grown on earth
4. Space based crypto storage and exchange
5. Space asset surveillance – one satellite watching another and / or collision avoidance or capture maneuvers for de-orbiting and thus avoiding more space junk
6. Asteroid mining and use of raw materials in space or transport back to earth
To be clear clear, I have seen startups either seriously discussing or actually undertaking applications like these. None of this is “too crazy” to be considered.
As many of you know, Adelaide is home to the Australian Space Agency, located at Lot Fourteen on North Terrace. Adelaide is also home to the Mission Control Centre, located in the same building within the Space Discovery Centre.
Further initiatives or noteworthy space companies located in Adelaide are:
- The UniSA ICC Venture Catalyst program, with alumni like AstrogateLabs (space based laser communications) or Lux Aerobot, (stratospheric balloons for earth observation)
- The International Space University (ISU) Southern Hemisphere Space Studies program, a 6 week space introduction course to “all things space”, delivered in cooperation with UniSA. Alumni of the ISU space program recently ran the ISU Adelaide Conference online from Adelaide for hundreds of participants across Asia-Pacific.
- Stone & Chalk, operator of the startup hub at Lot Fourteen, launching their own space program to support space startups soon.
- CyberOps, a cybersecurity consulting firm who have authored the Australian Space Cyber Framework
- Fleet Space Technologies, a startup funded by Australian and international venture capital funds (Blackbird, Horizons Ventures) aiming to launch a constellation of IoT communication satellites enabling connectivity with user devices all over the planet communicating via the LoRaWan protocol
- Myriota, a startup spun off from UniSA and funded by Australian and international venture capital funds (Main Sequence Ventures, BoeingX, SA Venture Fund) aiming to launch a constellation of IoT communication satellites based on proprietary direct-to-orbit communication technology
- Southern Launch, developing the Whalers Way launch complex, an orbital rocket launch site here in South Australia who were just last week have been granted their license to operate.
- The Andy Thomas Space Foundation, named after South Australia’s own astronaut Andy Thomas AO, a recently established education and outreach foundation, dedicated to support space education and inspire young Australians to pursue careers in the space sector. The ATSF also runs the Australian Space Forum, Australia’s premier space conference.
- The SmartSat CRC, a cooperative research centre focused on generating new satellite technologies and applications, also based at Lot Fourteen. SmartSat is also managing SA-SAT1, the first satellite project by a state government. SA-SAT1 has as a payload a hyperspectral imaging system which will observe the earth’s surface in dozens of wavelengths of light for each pixel.
- Gravity Challenge, a global space challenge program is run from Adelaide, bringing together corporates and their real world challenges with innovators solving them, and in the course of that hopefully incubating and accelerating a few startups that have the potential to change the world.
There are many more space companies and space initiatives in Adelaide, unfortunately we can’t name them all. Across Australia there are about 10,000 people working in both civil space and defence-related space. The Australian Space Agency has stated as its goal until 2030 to triple the space industry and to add about 20,000 jobs in the space industry and launched a number of funding initiatives to that end.
How does all this tie into startups? As mentioned above, just like any other industry, the space industry is also being disrupted by technology. In addition to hardware becoming cheaper, space technologies, especially space generated data, are increasingly being used in many industries, such as agriculture, finance, transport, logistics. So, if the above mentioned in-orbit space hardware sounds a little too crazy, as a digital and software entrepreneur you might consider using space technologies to accomplish the following more down to earth objectives:
- Automated road toll management in remote areas
- Precision farming in agriculture
- Asset monitoring and time synchronization in finance & insurance
- Time synchronisation of energy grids
- Precision maps for autonomous driving
- Collision avoidance and waterway dredging
- Crop yield optimisation, and many more…
And just like there is “Space for anything”, generic technologies such as Artificial Intelligence or Cybersecurity apply to space as well. Think for example:
- Extraction of data from satellite imagery by means of computer vision algorithms (the Australian Institute of Machine Learning has a few people working on that)
- Autonomous formation flying of satellites
- Prediction of non-trackable orbital debris by means of sophisticated statistical modelling
- Secure-by-design architecture of satellite communication (uplink, downlink, missioncontrol)
And because we’re so relying on space-based infrastructure such as GPS, consider this: A solar storm caused a massive blackout in Canada in 1989 in the entire province of Quebec.
“On Friday March 10, 1989 astronomers witnessed a powerful explosion on the sun. Within minutes, tangled magnetic forces on the sun had released a billion-ton cloud of gas. It was like the energy of thousands of nuclear bombs exploding at the same time. The storm cloud rushed out from the sun, straight towards Earth, at a million miles an hour.”
And hence, ever since, “space weather” is a thing and the BOM has a person keeping an eye on space weather because if that happens again, the impact will be more disastrous than in 1989 when GPS didn’t really exist yet, at least not for widespread civil use. There is even a space weather startup (though not Australian).
Now, because we love our cousins interstate so much, we want to give a shout out to the following space startups in other parts of Australia:
- HEO Robotics from Sydney- using earth observation cameras on one satellite not to watch earth – but other satellites. Spacecraft owners pay real money for this.
- Spiral Blue from Sydney – worried about satellite communications bandwidth being a bottleneck? Especially when 90% of the data is useless? Then pre-process the data on the satellite already before beaming it down. Sydney based Spiral Blue is making that type of edge computing happen.
- Space Services Australia from Canberra who create digital twin software to plan and operate satellites using the Unreal Engine, otherwise known to video gamers. PS: one of the founders of SSA actually has a PhD in formation flying of satellites!
- Arlula from Sydney – a new generation marketplace for satellite imagery, which is still hard to access, difficult to process, has opaque licensing agreements and takes days or weeks to finally download. Think of Arlula as an open, API driven, software-enabled marketplace with near-real time between search query to download.
As a side note: Both Fleet Space Technologies and Myriota successfully launched satellites last week on a Rocketlab launch from New Zealand – itself a privately funded rocket and launch site. In addition, on that launch was a RAAF satellite that will eventually split into two satellites and demonstrate formation flying capability – how cool is that?
Finally, some words about private capital in Spacetech. From a macro view, global VC into Spacetech is about $4-5B p.a., which makes it about 1.5% of overall global VC. However, in 2019/20, about 50% of space venture capital went to just 3 companies – SpaceX, OneWeb, and Virgin Galactic. This and other mega-rounds distort numbers in small markets (for example Rocketlab US$140M fundraising which in one report was attributed to New Zealand).
When it comes to Australia, a few investments and investors in Australia stand out:
- Blackbird Ventures (investments in Fleet Space Technologies, Gilmour SpaceTechnologies, Flurosat)
- Main Sequence Ventures (investments in Myriota, Gilmour Space Technologies and other adjacent deep tech)
- Right Click Capital (investment Swoop Aero which I’m including here as Space)
As you can guess, only a handful of Spacetech companies in Australia combine the majority of VC investment into Spacetech. By my count, 8 companies raised about $85M between them, and that’s about 80% of the total. About 20-30 companies have raised some seed funding or grant funding and many more are “not yet in the zone”, ie. they’re essentially at the pre-seed stage. Both UniSA ICC Venture Catalyst and Moonshot Space are currently selecting their next cohort of Pre-Seed and Seed stage participants so hopefully we will see more VC-backable companies soon.
How can aspiring talent take advantage of the Spacetech opportunity? This would probably make for another blog post but here are some ideas:
- Start educating yourself. Many challenges and hackathons are global. Take part in Gravity Challenge or NASA Space AppsChallenge to get your hands on actual challenges that need solving. Team up and contribute.
- Join the Adelaide Spacetech Meetup group and network and if you’re still at uni, join AYAA.
- Explore free satellite imagery resources like Sentinel and Landsat.
- If you’re an entrepreneur, start thinking about how space generated data can improveyour existing business.
- If you’re an existing consultant in the space industry, think about how you can productizeyour business and make it more scalable.
I hope this made for a useful introduction to “Space in Adelaide”. Any questions – please feel free to reach out to me via Linkedin.