Mars bid: Is it lost in space?
IN JULY, Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner revealed talks were under way "with the private sector and traditional owners" for a space industry in the Top End.
It was hard to accept the government's proposition as serious, especially when Mr Gunner joked with media about the best way to present the plan so as to maximise its chances of being taken seriously.
Last week, however, things became serious as space experts from around the globe gathered in Australia to plan a mission to Mars.
Given the NT Government's apparent exuberance on the issue, we might have expected the conference's 4300 delegates to gather in Darwin.
Or Alice Springs, near the already famous "space base" at Pine Gap?
But it wasn't to be.
Perhaps organisers evaluated the Territory's NBN services and concluded that the first astronaut to download anything bigger than an email would see a Territory space program collapse for a lack of bandwidth.
However it went down, the big players in the space race went to Adelaide for the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) 2017.
On Monday, September 25, Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham committed an unspecified amount of federal funds to a national space agency.
The move followed the findings of a federal working group, which, after widespread consultation, recommended Australia establish the agency.
When the space race began back in the 1960s, Australia was a prominent player and performed a key role in the 1969 moon landing.
But we have fallen behind. An Australian space agency is certainly a leap forward though, and has been welcomed by industry.
Still, the amount of the promised funds remains hazy. And no actual location for the agency has been announced.
For its part, the Territory was previously considered the perfect spot.
Chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia Brett Biddington cited remoteness and proximity to the equator as crucial.
Nonetheless, Senator Birmingham's Adelaide doorstop smelled of a deal already done when he told press: "Given our unique geography, we can be confident that South Australia will be central and a key beneficiary of any growth related to space agency-type activity."
The space agency will "drive Australia's role in the international space sector", he said, as an entity to "generate and drive investment in Australia".
That's because a space industry is not about governments but is "thoroughly commercial, an industry undertaking in so many ways, upon which so much of our communications, technology, infrastructure depends".
All of which boils down to any Australian rocket that goes up, won't come down on the government's bottom line.
The space agency will facilitate, putting government's imprimatur on smart endeavours conceived, enacted and funded by business.
At the Adelaide conference, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk unveiled plans to land people on Mars in 2024.
Ultimately, he dreams of a city of a million, with a first-stop training base on the moon.
But every would-be Martian will need food, and that's where the Territory may still have a chance.
Unsurprisingly, expertise to grow food on Mars will come from those who already grow it in tough environments on Earth, our farmers and agricultural researchers.
Already, the race to grow space food is building pace, with United Arab Emirates positioned to build a prototype Martian city on Earth.
Meanwhile, a US-based company claims it can replicate any required climate inside a sealed shipping container, a veritable 'meal-in-a-box'.
The trouble, according to NASA, is that the Red Planet has no real soil but is "covered with regolith: crushed volcanic rock containing nothing organic".
And what little "soil" there is contains toxic chemicals, adding to the challenge.
In a 2016 preliminary experiment at the Buzz Aldrin Space Institute in Florida, scientists tried growing lettuce in simulated Martian soils.
Fewer plants survived the faux Martian material compared with real Earth soil, and those that did sported weaker roots.
But, NASA happily reported, the plants "tasted the same".
Importantly, however, germination rates were "two to three days slower than in control groups", meaning understanding how growing times differ from Earth to Mars could be crucial.
The first large-scale controlled experiment to investigate growing food plants on Mars and the Moon also used simulated soils (or simulants) with results published in 2014.
While questions remain as to how well the simulants mimic the extraterrestrial soils, results were hopeful, demonstrating that "in principle it is possible to grow crops and other plant species in Martian and Lunar soil simulants".
"Reflexed stonecrop (a wild plant), the crops tomato, wheat and cress, and the green manure species field mustard performed particularly well.
"The latter three flowered, and cress and field mustard also produced seeds."
It simply makes good sense that Australia's north be part of efforts to grow food for Mars. But whether or not Australia (and the Territory) is able to take up such opportunities comes down to its universities.
And there's the rub, for while the long overdue space agency is more than welcome, we must acknowledge the parlous state of our universities.
Upon their shoulders rests responsibility for Australian success in space, both for the research push and for shaping young minds.
But Australia's universities are mired in uncertainty, struggling against deep cuts to public funding.
Figures from 2015 showed Australia ranked 33rd out of 34 OECD countries for public investment in tertiary education.
Conversely, a report released last week by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences showed public sector funding of rural research and development rose steadily in the decade to 2015.
A fake website launched last week for a bogus organisation called Australian Research and Space Exploration, or ARSE, parodies the space agency move.
The satirical site is all mission statements and grandiose visions, a federal money drain waiting to happen.
By contrast, Australia is well positioned to help in the space race, so too the Northern Territory.
And increased rural funding is a good start.
But without healthy universities we risk becoming lost in space, adrift on the space agency we deserve at the farthest reaches - some might even say the ARSE-end - of the galaxy.
Declaration of interest: Dr Glenn Morrison teaches casually at several Australian universities.