The countdown is on to the next Indo-Pacific Space and Earth Conference (IPSEC) on planet Perth after more than 400 people attended the inaugural event, including high-ranking NASA officials, Western Australian government representatives and US deputy chief of mission Erika Olson, who said, “this is a different kind of space conference”.
IPSEC was convened to uniquely probe the “intersect between space and on-Earth industries” such as mining, oil and gas, and agriculture.
There are few places where the paths are joining more than WA, which has industry and public agencies investing heavily in high-tech space research, robotics and resource definition and extraction.
IPSEC followed on the heels of the recent Off-Earth Mining Forum in Perth, run for the first time outside Sydney by the University of New South Wales space research and minerals engineering departments. The forum got a decent crowd, including some miners who may have heard something about asteroids made of gold, or a particularly rare mineral called Ubh-310.
IPSEC had many more people, including greater representation from the “supplier ecosystem” NASA is keen to help stimulate and ultimately tap, many more international visitors, and many more acronyms signalling deeper co-operation between space and terrestrial organisations.
Olson spoke of historical links between US space exploration and research, and local communications and radio astronomy infrastructure, but was keen to emphasise future co-operation around lunar vehicle development and remote control in association with the Artemis program, and the next-level Square Kilometre Array radio astronomy facility. The event also heard the WA Government had just tipped a further $5 million into the Australian Space Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Control Complex (SpAARC) in the Perth CBD, which state science and technology minister Stephen Dawson said would help “attract international talent to WA, forming the most experienced space mission operation team in the southern hemisphere”.
Olson and NASA exploration systems development administrator, Jim Free, suggested the state with its rare domain knowledge in remote asset management and control in the multi-billion-dollar mining and energy sectors, and increasing investment in space infrastructure, could be a rising force in the now fast-growing, half-a-trillion-dollar commercial global space industry.
“As we look to the Moon and beyond we’re excited about the potential synergies with the mining, oil and gas industries as we journey farther from home with missions that will require increased autonomy,” Free said.
Olson said: “The US space partnership with Australia is especially strong in WA.
“We couldn’t be holding this event in a more dynamic place.”
Dawson was keen to turn that into a bumper sticker. “WA is the place for space,” he said.
Enrico Palermo, head of the barely-five-years-old Australian Space Agency and a “proud Perth boy”, said SpAARC was an example of the “asymmetric capability we have in Australia; capability that could shift a paradigm in space operations”.
“There is now a world-first facility here in town that is operating complex missions from the deep sea to deep space,” he said.
“We are at a very important tipping point. In the next 6-9 months Australia’s space heritage will grow significantly. I can count more than 10 organisations that are putting their technology into space for the first time.”
And the Australian Space Agency’s astronaut candidate, space systems engineer, Katherine Bennell-Pegg, is more than half way through her training at the European Space Agency.
While Free spoke of the “why” catalysing tens of billions of dollars of new (mainly terrestrial) space investment – led by the US but now also involving circa-30 Artemis Accords signatories – IPSEC heard plenty from Earth-bound industry representatives offering reasons for getting on board with Artemis.
There were parallels with NASA’s primary motivations: “Science, national posture and inspiration”.
Technological advancement and interchange; geopolitical and economic positioning; and inspiring a new generation of talent and leadership, were clear motivations for mining’s ground-floor engagement with the Artemis generation of space exploration and, possibly, settlement.
Leanne Cunnold, CEO of the Australian Remote Operations for Space and Earth (AROSE) consortium, one of the groups in the race to build Australia’s lunar prospecting rover for NASA, said one of the country’s “biggest contributions to civil space since the Apollo mission” would produce technological advances “that will benefit many sectors, including resources, agriculture, health and manufacturing”.
“It also has the power to motivate our future space scientists, engineers, technology specialists and all of the next generation to pursue careers in STEM,” she said.
AROSE chair and veteran mining industry leader, David Flanagan said he not only wanted to see a Moon rover designed and built in Australia, he wanted to “put a lunar rover in every school, in every town in Australia, so every kid can feel connected to what’s happening … and be drawn to that flame”.
“Not a real rover,” he said. “A 3D printed model.
“The industry of space is also the industry of optimism. You bring together these remarkable people with IQ and EQ, they work together in teams, and they take on the biggest challenges: massive challenges.
“For young people today quite often everywhere they look they can just see challenges. But knowing that there are teams of people that are looking into the future … and coming up with ways to resolve those challenges, it just fills you with optimism about the future we are going to leave for our kids.
“I see that ability to take on challenges as being translatable everywhere.”
Flanagan told InvestMETS.com on the sidelines of the conference: “A mining engineer is like a systems engineer. They understand … technology intersecting with systems to solve a problem. I see them actually getting better and better.
“Why couldn’t you have a mining engineer who also works on a space project?
“You could be working in the space industry but also working in resource development simultaneously.
“What’s the ultimate challenge for the mining industry? It’s basically to extract a useful mineral, with near zero environmental impact, with zero emissions, and zero harm, at low cost. That just sounds inconceivable, right? But so did going to the Moon.
“There are people out there who, for fun, are playing around and trying to figure out how to try to do that.”
Susan Kreemer Pickford, WA general manager of Engineers Australia, said inspiration and passion could not be oversold.
“We need to inspire and excite young people about the possibilities because we’ve got declining rates of students taking up maths and science,” she said.
“With every sector in Australia we’re currently facing a skills shortage, so it’s really important that we continue to inspire and support our future engineers.
“Engineers have a pivotal role to play in the space industry. That means all engineers from all disciplines … along with a wide range of other disciplines of course.
“We know that we need those strong technical skills, but as we’ve heard from many presentations [at this conference] we also need engineers to be thinking a bit more entrepreneurially and innovatively.”
With mining increasingly being recast as a cornerstone of the world’s energy transition, but having to fight image problems as it tries to build human capacity and win project approvals, the industry is increasingly looking to technology to transform its performance and its brand. It is becoming more collegiate in its approach to technology development, similar to NASA, and will look to improve adoption rates to rapidly shrink its carbon emission and overall waste footprints.
Dave Lawie, chief geoscientist and chief technologist at ASX-listed Imdex, suggested mining had to change to get back in a global race for talent.
“One of the key challenges for our industry is that when you talk to young people about what industry they want to go into, and this might be news to our space friends, but out of a list of 18 different industries, the minerals industry came 18th [Edelman survey],” he said.
“So actually the least desirable, after oil and gas.
“That is absolutely shocking.
“But things like this [space] cooperation give the industry visibility in a very positive light. We need it from a critical metals point of view because we just don’t get enough people in the industry to solve what is going to become a quite intractable problem. We actually need the best and brightest young people, not just the people themselves. And we have a hellish job attracting them now.
“But the more of these things that we’re doing in public and being seen to be a technology-based industry, the better it will be for us.”
Jacqui Coombes, chair of Australian mining research group Mining3, sees important parallels in space and mining skills development that could bode well for the future.
She told InvestMETS.com the vision and strategy for building capability around the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) were hatched 14 years ago, authored by International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) founder, Dr Peter Quinn, and progressively brought to life through a collaboration of WA’s two major universities with state and federal funding. Coombes, who currently also chairs ICRAR, says maybe half a dozen radio astronomers in Perth had become more than 200.
“Within 15 years ICRAR has established a thriving ecosystem of capability to support SKA and in the process helped create a capability pool for multiple sectors,” she said.
“Beyond servicing SKA, ICRAR plays a fundamental role in building WA and Australia’s STEM capability.”
The SKA is still six years away from launch.
Coombes said similar collaboration between industry, academia and geological surveys across more than 20 countries in the western region of Africa – coordinated by Australia’s Amira Global via the West African Exploration Initiative (WAXI) had produced more than 100 PhDs, postdocs and masters, 60% of them West African.
“This creates an incredible talent pool for the region and a pipeline of industry leaders,” she said.
“The data, knowledge and capability developed through WAXI is phenomenal.
“Coupled with this is the SAXI [South American Exploration Initiative] allied program in the north of South America … which is again producing cohorts of geoscientists to serve the region and inter-connecting the regional geological surveys.
“Amira is helping develop EAXI [East African Exploration Initiative) and GAXI [Geodynamic Andes Exploration Initiative], aiming to replicate the success of the WAXI and SAXI models.”