Is it a stingray? Is it the cruel claw of an eagle? Is it the cross that guided sailors crossing the oceans to lands unknown? There are many ways in Australian culture to look at the stars. The differences are a fascination that has intrigued astronomer Paul Curnow for some 30 years. “When I was learning about the constellations it was a very Eurocentric view,” he says.
It began a lifelong passion and exploration that has made him an internationally recognised expert on Aboriginal astronomy. It’s a store of knowledge he readily shares, particularly with young people.
“When I talk to young people, they absolutely love space. Space always captures the imagination. If you’re a teacher, and you talk about dinosaurs or space, they love it,” he says.
Curnow has been a lecturer at the Adelaide Planetarium since 1992, where school groups, the general public and tertiary students come through. “It’s a great teaching tool,” he says. A commonly recognised group of stars he talks about form the Southern Cross in Western traditions but are seen differently by indigenous cultures.
The Ngarrindjeri people from the Coorong region of South Australia see it as a stingray being pursued by two sharks – Alpha and Beta Centauri or the pointers to the Southern Cross. The Kaurna of the Adelaide Plains, the Adnyamathanha of the Flinders Ranges and several central Australian peoples see it as the talon of an eagle.
Indigenous groups see stars forming constellation patterns, or see shapes in the dark spaces between stars or have stories about individual stars. The Milky Way can be seen as a river and Orion as hunters or fishers. Curnow believes a focus on science and astronomy will be an entry card for young people wanting a career in the space industry.
“It’s real stuff, there have already been a lot of companies come to SA to invest in rockets, satellite technology. It’s just going to blossom,” he says.
The fact South Australia has vast areas with minimal population and low rainfall creates ideal viewing conditions for astronomers. “SA has some of the darkest skies in the world,” Curnow says. “From a tourism point of view, we’re setting up a number of dark sky parks.
"One of my favourite places is the Flinders Ranges because you’ve got fossils that are hundreds of millions of years old and the dark skies so the potential for tourism there is fantastic. There are a number of groups that take tourists out on expeditions to look at the night sky.
"Northern Hemisphere skies are very light-polluted, so people from China, Japan, Europe, the US are coming to Australia because we still have dark skies.”
Out on the frontier you need courage and the best kit you can get. You also need a lawyer, a good one. That’s where the University of Adelaide will have you covered. Dean of Law Melissa de Zwart believes the university is the first in the country to teach space law, part of a range of related initiatives involving staff, undergraduate and post-graduate students.
The university teaches, researches, advocates for industry players, hosts the Asia-Pacific round of a global space law mooting competition, helps produce an annual index on space security and is a founder institution in an international project – the Woomera Manual – which will clarify laws on military operations in space.
When the university began teaching its course, Strategic Space Law, a few years ago, students aspired to jobs in the sector. Now a significant proportion of students already work for space companies or for government in policy and regulatory areas. “So that’s really exciting,” Professor de Zwart says. “When we first started teaching we’d say to students, ‘You’re not going to step out of this course and get a job as a space lawyer’. Now, you can.”
Professor de Zwart, who loves going for a run along the River Torrens Linear Park Trail when she can, has built a career looking at the intersection of law and technology. In talking to space industry companies, she has become more aware of the peculiar legal issues they face.
The university was heavily involved in making submissions to the review of federal laws which led to the Space (Launches and Returns) Act 2018 which will take effect on August 1.
The Act creates a more flexible and commercial regime for the industry. “So we’ve worked with the civilian commercial space industry in advocating for a regulatory regime that suits them, and a lot of them happen to be in SA,” she says.
The Woomera Manual is an acknowledgment that space is already essential to armed forces globally in terms of communication, situational awareness and other factors. The manual’s genesis dates back to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty brokered by the United Nations which declared the exploration and use of space should be for peaceful purposes.
“As more and more infrastructure moves into space, it’s likely there will be the capacity for conflict,” she says. “The UN treaty was very general, it was aimed at ensuring both the USSR and US didn’t put a nuclear weapon in space. It was written at a time when nation states were the only operators in space and they didn’t contemplate anything else. And, under the treaties, countries remain responsible for launches and the actions of its nationals in space activities.”
Now traffic management, commercial rights, insurance, responsibility for debris, clearing debris, cyber security, intellectual property, resource extraction and downstream uses are some of the legal issues surging to the fore. Beyond that are big questions about controlling rogue states and thwarting terrorists.
“So, there are a lot of legal issues to be addressed,” she says. “To understand space you do need to understand the international treaties because you need to know what’s weird about it. There’s nothing like space from a legal point of view.
"People refer to the law of the sea which is similar but it’s not the same. The law of the sea conventions are a lot more developed – for example, there are laws around a shipwreck, but what happens if you’re stranded on an asteroid?”
South Australian Attorney-General Vickie Chapman is among those excited by the opportunities. Chapman took time out from her ministerial duties in June to attend the university’s space law classes.
“The legal structure is embryonic, but we need to get up to speed as a state in the legal profession,” she says. With the Australian Space agency being based in SA, there will be opportunities for young professionals as well as existing legal practices wanting to diversify, she believes.
Professor de Zwart says Adelaide is well placed to take a lead in legal research, especially because of its deep links with defence, domestically and internationally. Significant structural change is needed because, under the UN treaties, disputes should be destined for the International Court of Justice with cases fought between the responsible entities, that is, nation states.
“As more commercial operators move into the space environment, disputes may or may not involve something to do with the UN treaties. They’re more likely to be about licensing obligations or transfer of rights – more contract, commercial rights issues will arise,” she says.
The rights to use space will become increasingly complex. Under the UN treaties, space cannot be owned but some aspects are regulated. The International Telecommunication Union manages spectrum and geostationary orbits – the belt around the equator – which are vital for communications. But, with fast-increasing numbers of satellites and different orbits, difficulties will arise.
“It’s something that needs to be dealt with at international levels,” Professor de Zwart says – and the lack of global co-operation on sustainability portends a hard row to hoe. “Launches are increasing each year, more countries are launching each year.
"Smaller things are being launched. It’s much cheaper. Everyone can send stuff up.”
In South Australia, Professor de Zwart sees the space industry rippling out across sectors. “To be in the space industry, you don’t have to be launching rockets. It’s much bigger than that,” she says.
“There’s artificial intelligence, cyber security, robotics tied into it. And, if you have growth in the space industry, benefits flow on to other industries.
“Space inspires people, for sure. But it’s also a manifestation of manufacturing, physics, engineering, computing, you name it.”
The state’s rich history of rockets and satellites puts South Australians in a better position to embrace the new space age, a leading expert in space archaeology believes. While people in other states and Canberra have suffered from a cringe factor that Australia isn’t powerful enough to play in space and it’s all a bit silly, SA has got on with it and backed space activities.
“For South Australians, this isn’t some weird thing that happens somewhere else. It happens right here: SA was where it all began for Australia in space,” Flinders University archaeologist Alice Gorman says, referring back to 1947 when the UK needed somewhere to test rockets for weapons and partnered with the Australian Government to establish the Woomera Rocket Range.
Woomera became a hive of activity with young people, especially locals from SA, flocking to the Outback town. At its height, it had the highest birthrate in the nation and launch pads were constantly busy. “Connections to this space heritage are deeply entangled in the South Australian community. SA has long had space in its blood,” Dr Gorman says.
Known as “Dr Space Junk” because of her writings, Dr Gorman teaches students and gives public lectures on space heritage. SA’s involvement has not been limited to providing the huge tract of land that is Woomera. The University of Adelaide was closely involved in the technical side from early days in Woomera.
The university’s physics department, led by Professor John Carver, designed and built Australia’s first satellite – WRESAT 1 (Weapons Research Establishment Satellite). This was launched on November 29, 1967, from Woomera aboard a modified US Redstone rocket. The satellite made Australia the third country in the world, after the US and the USSR, to launch its own satellite into orbit from its own territory.
Adelaide scientists also played crucial roles in Australia’s third satellite, FedSat, launched in 2002. The second satellite, Australis OSCAR 5, which is painted in the black-and-white stripes of a Collingwood footy jumper, was built by ham radio enthusiasts with support from Melbourne University. It was launched in California in 1970 and is still in orbit.
FedSat was a national collaboration and launched by Japan as a gift. The Institute for Telecommunications Research at the University of SA designed components and provided the ground station for telemetry, tracking and control from Mawson Lakes in the northern suburbs of Adelaide.
Japan has had significant involvement in Woomera, including using it in 2010 to land samples scooped from asteroid Itokawa by Hayabusa 1. SA has also been a major centre for the Defence Science and Technology arm of the Federal Government which has run many research projects related to space.
Dr Gorman says existence of the DST Group and its predecessors was one of the reasons the Federal Government didn’t see the need for a national body for space. “There is still a close relationship between defence and space but we’ve now entered into a new phase where civil space activities are coming alive,” she says.
Private companies have got ahead of government and Dr Gorman is excited to see that finally “Australia is prepared to back its own technology”. She wants Flinders University to use its strengths in technical areas such as robotics as the space industry grows.
She also sees great scope in the humanities because there should be more research and debate about ethics in space exploration and about which bits of space junk should be preserved so future generations can better understand this piece of human history.