Path to space industry illuminated for Australian students

When 12-year-old Emanuel Zoing got the chance to ask NASA's acting administrator Robert Lightfoot a question, he didn't hesitate.

"Are there any plans to use antimatter as a fuel source?" asked Emanuel, in year 7 and home-schooled in Sydney's south.

In response, Mr Lightfoot asked Emanuel when he was coming to work at NASA, and Emanuel was equally impressed with the head of the US space agency.

"He could answer my question that even when I researched a lot, I didn't find much on," Emanuel said.

"I'm doing a lot of research in my free time on CSIRO and NASA and how they work together and learning about their goals as well, I'm especially interested in Mars, Pluto and Alpha Centauri."

Emanuel is one of a dozen Sydney students who spoke to Mr Lightfoot and CSIRO's chief executive Larry Marshall on Friday about the possibilities for Australian students following this week's announcement that the country will establish a domestic space agency.

"From what I've seen in the US with NASA and with the space agencies I work with around the world is that having a space agency, having that vision, is something that attracts children and students to come and be in this industry," Mr Lightfoot told Fairfax Media.

He said that Australia has been a NASA partner for a long time but that "it's time for Australia to be at the table".

Mr Lightfoot said Australian scientists are already playing an important role in Canberra, which is the site of one of three deep space stations that receive and send data to NASA and other agencies' spacecraft.

"The last signals from Cassini [which orbited Saturn for 13 years before completing its mission by plunging into the planet two weeks ago] came right through here," he told the students.

"If we discover life somewhere else, that signal could [also] come right here through the team in Australia, it's pretty awesome."

Mabel Paz, 15, in year 10 at St Mark's Catholic College in Sydney's north-west, said there isn't much discussion in schools about opportunities in the space industry, but she is hoping that will change with the establishment of the space agency.

"We feel very disconnected, especially with regards to space," Mabel said.

"I didn't really know these opportunities and pathways were there until these talks with NASA and CSIRO."

Mabel said she and her fellow year 10 students are currently finalising their subject choices for the HSC, and she will most likely choose maths and at least two science electives so that she can study aerospace engineering at university.

Adrian Aye, 15, also in year 10 at St Mark's, said the new space agency could provide "a more local pathway you can go into".

Dr Marshall said that CSIRO achieved one of its major goals this week of controlling a satellite, and is now looking to "control something really far away, deep space technology".

"I bet we'll make a breakthrough on that in the next six months," he said.

"When I was a child, about five years old, I had the privilege of seeing man land on the moon. Imagine my excitement more than 50 years later when I got woken up in the wee hours of the morning by CSIRO scientists at the ground station [in Canberra] who were receiving the first images of Pluto.

"So in my lifetime, Australian science in partnership with NASA has gone from the moon to Pluto, the entire solar system," Dr Marshall told the students.

"That's amazing for me, but imagine what you're going to see in your lifetimes, imagine just how far science will go, and you'll get to actually be a part of it."

This story Path to space industry illuminated for Australian students first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.