IF astronauts ever make it to Mars, Australia will be in the box seat to transmit mankind’s next giant leap into the universe, the CSIRO says.
On July 21, the world will mark the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 moon landing and with it, the role Australian scientists and engineers played in sharing the jaw-dropping moment with the planet.
The CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory, in NSW, was responsible for receiving and sharing the longest and most exciting footage of the landing, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin revelled in being the first human beings to stand on the moon.
The CSIRO says there’s no reason why Australia shouldn’t play that role again in the future, when mankind finally makes its first dash for Mars.
“We’re often in the best position to talk to NASA’s spacecraft, and so when people walk on Mars, it’s quite feasible those images could come down to Australia, as they did when people first walked on the moon,” says Dr Sarah Pearce, the deputy director for astronomy and space science at the CSIRO.
“I’d hope that Australia would play a significant role in communication, as we have with NASA’s solar system missions across the last 50 years.”
Australia is officially one year into ambitious plans to spark a space industry boom.
The federal government is spending more than $40 million in a bid to triple the size of the nation’s space sector to $12 billion by 2030, and create 20,000 new jobs in the process.
The Australian Space Agency, based in Adelaide, has been tasked with that job. It turned a year old on Monday, something NASA is celebrating although has hinted could have come earlier.
“I’d like to congratulate Australia … it was about time,” says Badri Younes, a senior official with NASA’s space communications program.
He sees vast opportunities for Australia to build on its long history of cooperation with NASA, and to aid the Artemis mission, a crucial first step on the journey to Mars.
NASA is pursing plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, a mission that will see humans explore the moon’s south pole for the first time.
The private sector and international partners will be central to the mission, which ultimately aims to set up a sustainable human presence on the moon by 2028.
And that is a critical step towards Mars, with the moon base to act as a testing ground and staging post for future manned missions to the red planet.
In the meantime, NASA is pressing on with Mars 2020, a new rover mission that will seek out signs of habitable conditions in the planet’s ancient past, with Australians already in the US working on the project.
With a manned mission still so far off, the Australian Space Agency is firmly focused on shorter-term objectives, including inspiring the workers of tomorrow.
The agency’s deputy chief Anthony Murfett says one of its crucial functions is to inspire and make young people understand the earthly benefits of space-related work.
He cites satellite technology that’s being used to help farmers manage their land and emergency services better respond to natural diasters.
He also says learning how to grow food in hostile, extraterrestrial environments will reap benefits for the earth as climate change takes hold and discusses the benefits traditional industries will reap from the miniaturisation of technology space missions require.
“We need to make sure we inspire so we have a work force to support the growth of the industry.”