Exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and civilisations, and boldly going where no human has gone before. Space is the next frontier, but not in the way Trekkies imagined it. The booming space industry is all about satellite and telecommunications technology.

Rockets, space travel and colonising other planets. For many people, these are things that come to mind when talking about space.

And although space is touted as the next trillion-dollar industry, plans for space tourism, interplanetary travel and space mining, are likely to remain niche, expensive specialties for some time.

The boom in the space industry (one of the fastest growing industries in the world) is primarily in telecommunications, Earth observations, navigation and using satellite data to address problems on Earth.

Professor Andy KoroniosUniversity of South Australia Dean of Industry & Enterprise Professor Andy Koronios says advances in space technologies have resulted in a dramatic lowering of the barriers to entry to the global space industry.

“Collecting data about the Earth and observing it was once the preserve of governments and ultra large companies – because it was difficult and expensive to launch a satellite,” he says.

The miniaturisation of hardware, incorporating the equivalent computational power in a much smaller, lighter form, has made the space sector much more affordable.

“It’s 100 or even 1000 times cheaper than it was 15 years ago, or you can get 1000 times more power for the same price,” Prof Koronios says.

Where older satellites might have cost as much as $200 million each to launch and stand as large as a modern SUV, newer ones are more likely to be the size of a toaster and may cost less than $50,000 to launch. One rocket can now send as many as hundreds of nano-satellites into space at the same time. This means even small companies can afford to own their own satellite.

“At the moment we’re experiencing a similar curve in activity with space as we did in the early days (circa 1995) of the internet,” Prof Koronios says.

“The biggest commercial opportunities, particularly for countries like Australia, are those looking down on Earth – rather than outwards in missions to other planets and deep space exploration.”

These include using image data collected from satellites in a polar orbit, which orbit Earth’s north and south poles and as the Earth rotates, can scan and take images of the whole Earth, with each rotation lasting roughly 100 minutes.

“In addition to images, we can use infrared, radar and thermal sensors to collect data that once analysed, can identify moisture in vegetation, bushfire hot spots and even look deep into our oceans and our waterways; the applications are endless from precision agriculture, search and rescue, estimating economic activity, and even spotting illegal fishing,” Prof Koronios says.

“The techniques and algorithms developed for such applications in the next few years are set to become significant export opportunities for Australian companies, generating economic value for Australia and generating thousands of high tech jobs.”

Right now Australia’s space industry is estimated to be worth about 0.8 per cent of the global space market and industry advocates are targeting an increase to 1.8 per cent, which would be Australia’s fair share proportional to its economy.

The federal government is establishing a national space agency and has allocated more than $300 million in space related activities.

Prof Koronios says South Australia is well placed to take a leading role in this new and exciting area and has a vibrant space industry ecosystem with more than 40 SA-based organisations involved in commercial space activity.

South Australia is also leading a national effort to establish a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) in smart satellite technologies to attract further industry and government funding for next generation satellite technologies and spawn new Australian companies.

For more information on this initiative see smartsatcrc.com.