Over the last decade or so, the United States Air Force, together with various other military and civilian stakeholders, has been working hard on a program called "Operationally Responsive Space", or ORS for short. In essence, the program is developing ways to make Space Systems (Satellites in this case) responsive to urgent military needs, and in doing so, one of the program goals is to be able to go from mission call up to a fully build, integrated and tested satellite on launch pad in 7 days or less.
Now whilst this may sound like a bit of a far fetched idea, the folks at the ORS office, and now at the new Chili Works facility are getting close to this goal. And whilst the 7 day goal isn't there just yet, the capability to build a satellite in a few months is not just a dream. They've spent several years working on different technologies like "Plug-n-Play" standards and subsystems, Automatic and reconfigurable satellite software, and Rapid AIT technologies, as well as putting a series of Responsive Space "Building Blocks" on the shelf literally, to be able to rapidly access them when needed.
So, what does this have to do with Australia one might ask? Well - a lot in my opinion. Firstly, one of the aims of the ORS activities is to have the ability to "replenish" or "replace" satellite capabilities that have been lost, in a responsive manner. One of the big risks to Australia is loosing access to Space data and satellite systems, as many sectors of our society and our economy are reliant on it. Having the ability to replace our satellite needs if we were to loose our access or data - even if this capability was only a 50% replacement of what we lost, would be both a prudent risk mitigation step, as well as a major benefit if we ever did loose access.
Secondly, Responsive Satellites by their very nature, are small satellites. This is probably the best place for Australia to start - as many of the technologies and infrastructure required to build a 100kg satellite could easily be transferred from our current defence and electronics industries, without major investment. Building a 2 tonne telecommunications, cutting edge technology satellite requires highly specialised infrastructure and facilities, which we are a long way (both financially and lead time) from achieving, however the facilities for small satellites like small clean rooms, thermal-vacuum chambers, vibration chambers etc for the most part exist in Australia, or would need only small upgrades to adapt, and could be ready in the short term for little investment.
Thirdly, the United States is interested in globalising their ORS efforts - particularly with close military partners such as Australia. In this context, the US would likely help Australia set up an indigenous Responsive Space capability - especially through standards, techniques and tools that have already been developed. The upside for the US is that Australia could leverage the existing US developed technologies - expanding the market for these technologies in the US, helping sustain them and creating US export sales. Longer term, Australia could develop some indigenous building blocks for Responsive Space, and inject these back into US ORS programs.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is Cost. Responsive Space missions are generally under US$40 Million. This is probably an acceptable price point for Australia to begin to develop some satellites and get back in the Space domain in a reasonable manner. We could develop an EO satellite, perhaps a military communications satellite, or something similar - but one that would give us a big leg up in building satellites and space operations in general. For such a low cost, we could probably achieve a satellite every couple of years that could address different needs, together with having a capability in place if we ever do need a responsive satellite ourselves.
Together, the low cost of missions, the limited infrastructure upgrades needed, the leg-up from the US and the real risk mitigation for Australian Space capabilities make Responsive Space a good investment for Australia, and a good point for us to get back into the Space game with.