Understanding trends in space activity and their impact on the Indo-Pacific
By Renae Sayers
When we look up to the sky and take a moment to breathe in the night, we see those pin-pricks of light dotting the dark, urging us to wonder.
I used to wonder about which pin-pricks of light were far-off galaxies, stars and the planets closer to our home (spoiler: those ones don’t twinkle), but increasingly it’s the human-made dots of light darting across the sky that capture my curiosity – particularly as I helped get one of them (Western Australia’s first satellite “Binar-1” in 2021) up there.
Massive technological innovation has taken place in the Indo-Pacific satellite market over the last ten years. Launch costs – a critical enabler of access to space – have fallen more than 95 per cent in the past decade, making it easier and cheaper than ever before to research, operate and explore in space.
Over 80 countries have operated satellites in orbit, and 14 have launch capabilities. Whilst the big players (US, China, Europe, Russia, Japan and India) will continue to dominate space explorations and operations, private sector companies and emerging space-faring nations are playing their part in bringing the bounties of space activities (heralded from the Apollo program) back to Earth-bound benefits.
However, the nature of today’s space exploration is different than the Apollo era. Today, we usher in a time of unprecedented collaboration with commercial and international partners in the backdrop of the half-a-trillion-dollar space economy. Today, NASA is preparing to send the first woman and person of colour to the Moon, using more innovative technologies than ever before. This is the Artemis Generation, and its aim is to establish the first long-term presence on the Moon and pave the way to send astronauts to explore Mars.
It’s different, not just in what we will bring back to Earth through discoveries and doing things in space. But with what we do on Earth – like our resources industries here in WA – at scale, with the scope and suite of technologies and teams in challenging environments, day in and day out. This is part of the reimagined vision of lunar explorations and operations expected to stimulate the projected trillion-dollar space economy in decades to come.
These space activities will continue to profoundly impact the Indo-Pacific region and the world as we know it. It drives economic growth, promotes research and education, enhances national security, and fosters international cooperation. Satellites alone are being used more than ever before, and they’re getting cheaper at a rate unmatched in other technologies. As space intersects with many aspects of US-China competition, space diplomacy through multilateral coalitions, such as the Artemis Accords, and the Quad Space Working Group is increasing.
Simply put, nothing inspires like space, and no activity on Earth matches the unique challenges of space exploration. Our modern world and well-being would cease to exist without it, and the next 10 years will drastically shape it in ways we currently cannot imagine.
Today in Australia, we are delivering on the improbable of 10 years ago. We can support the international endeavour of recovering rocks from an asteroid with a space robot and analyse them in our research labs in Western Australia. We can design and build satellites and novel sensors for on-orbit applications, and even operate commercial assets on the Moon from Perth.
The exploration of space – and the science, technology and human spirit derived from such exploration – is changing the game for governments, industry and societies. The economics of space exploration continue to compel new entrants to the space market, and with 32 nation-state signatories to the Artemis Accords, we may see further disruption to diplomatic paradigms as the soft power of space science sustains cooperation in the simmering of traditional tensions.
As we look up and out across the Indo-Pacific and our role in the region, we would do well to watch these space trends from looking beyond by understanding that what we are doing in space has impacts on everyone on Earth, and what we do on Earth helps us go further in space. These are grand, global, human undertakings in which we can and should play a role in.
Renae Sayers is Deputy Director of the Space Science and Technology Centre at Curtin University, home of the Binar Space Program and the NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute in Australia for planetary research.