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International relations

Australia joins US in battle with China for space supremacy

New agency tasked with diversifying economy while bolstering military ties

NASA rendering of an ascent vehicle of the Artemis program blasting off from the surface of the moon.   © AP

SYDNEY -- When Australia announced a deal for $150 million Australian dollars ($102 million) to ensure its space industry's participation in NASA's Artemis mission, it was leveraging its 50-year collaboration with the U.S. space agency. It was also a show of shrewd but potentially risky space diplomacy as China readies to become America's most powerful space adversary.

The AU$150 million deal, spread over five years, was the minimum Australia would give its small but ambitious space sector to supply components and services to the Artemis mission.

Australia's space industry currently generates AU$3 billion to AU$4 billion a year. The Australian Space Agency, which was established only a year ago, has been tasked with growing the industry to around AU$12 billion a year in 10 years. It is part of Australia's plan to diversify the economy away from exporting iron ore, fossil fuels and farm products.

Through Artemis -- named after the twin sister of Apollo and the Greek goddess of the moon -- the U.S. space agency seeks to put a new space station in orbit around the moon, using it as an eventual gateway to build human settlements there. NASA expects the project will cost $20 to $30 billion over five years.

Australia has supported NASA space missions since the 1960s Apollo era, providing tracking and communications from its facilities in the Southern Hemisphere. Most notably, it relayed television and radio broadcasts from the Apollo 11 moon landing to the world.

The multiphase Artemis program is planned to mine the moon for water and materials to support future travel to Mars, where NASA intends to land human missions from around 2030. Water can be processed to provide hydrogen for rocket fuel and oxygen to support life.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks to the media on Aug. 15 at a NASA assembly facility in New Orleans, in the U.S. state of Louisiana, while standing next to a section of the rocket that will power NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar mission.   © Reuters

Megan Clarke, head of the ASA, exchanged letters of intent with U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross at NASA headquarters in Washington. The signing was part of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's first visit to Washington as leader in September. In remarks to the media before arriving in the U.S., Morrison made his ambitions for the trip clear.

"Whether it's new opportunities for our space agency, locking us into a supply chain, to collaborating with businesses and groups in the United States through to the growth in quality-critical minerals and rare earths that our miners export, our trading relationship has been diversifying," he said. "We've got a foot in the door and I want to use this trip to crack it open."

Morrison's candid remarks resonate with Australia's plan to spend AU$200 billion on defense equipment, using procurement to massively scale up the domestic arms industry. It wants to surpass Italy as the world's 10th-largest exporter of military equipment.

Clearly, Morrison wants Australia to profit from extraterrestrial investment, even though its space capability is generally seen in the ground-based domain. The country deploys its expertise to process data from satellites and sensors for remote sensing used in mining, crop monitoring and "space situational awareness," which identifies space debris that can damage or destroy satellites and other spacecraft. Australian defense contractor Electro Optic Systems says it is currently tracking 15,000 pieces of space debris a week. It compares this to what it says was NASA's highest tracking rate of 30,000 objects a month.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump. The prime minister made it clear he wants to grow his country's defense and space industries.   © AP

Leading Australian defense experts concur that any consideration of Australia's space interests automatically includes national security, spanning global positioning systems, weather monitoring, disaster relief and military operations, at a minimum.

Combine that with the close alignment of U.S. and Australian defense operations and it seems plausible that Australia could be drawn into potential U.S. military actions in space. Australia has fought alongside the U.S. in every one of its wars in the past century, notably in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

The U.S. Air Force Space Command, founded in response to President Donald Trump's order to create a "space force," last month published a detailed scenario planning report. It acknowledged China as the America's most powerful space adversary. It said China's recent lunar landing was an element of its "grand strategy" to have "global technological dominance" by 2040, and was part of the Belt and Road Initiative to secure "worldwide economic dominance."

Japan's space policy committee decided on Oct. 17 to also participate in the Artemis program.

China and its citizens are forbidden by law from participating in the U.S. space industry. Against this background, the U.S. Air Force Space Command produced two scenarios for the future of military domination of space.

The first scenario painted a rosy outlook, for America at least: "The U.S. coalition is the leading military space power, though space is a highly contested warfighting domain and an essential element in integrated, cross-domain warfare. Commercial and civil space activities are limited to low earth orbit to geostationary earth orbit systems with minor levels of tourism.

Military space systems are highly resilient, maneuverable, robotically refuelable, self-healing to attack, highly integrated, artificial intelligence driven, highly autonomous, and reconstitution ability is enhanced. The U.S. coalition holds the advantage in using civil and commercial capabilities to support military capabilities."

The second scenario contained only one sentence, describing a bleak military future in space for the Americans: "Same as above, except an alternate nation [China] and its allies are the dominant space power."

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