House debates

Wednesday, 28 March 2018


Australian Astronomical Observatory (Transition) Bill 2018; Second Reading

12:40 pm

Photo of David ColemanDavid Coleman (Banks, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to introduce the Australian Astronomical Observatory (Transition) Bill 2018, to support and give effect to the government's 2017-18 Budget measure 'Maintaining Australia's Optical Astronomy Capability'.

The new measure ushers in change, growth and a bright new era for Australian optical astronomy.

Astronomy and astrophysics are major scientific strengths for Australia. The spectacular discoveries and images created by our astronomers advance scientific understanding, stimulate interest by young people in scientific careers, and inspire all of us to think about our place in the universe.

Astronomy also leads to technological innovations with important spin-off applications valued by society, such as digital cameras, satellite global positioning systems, medical image processing software and the CSIRO's development of wi-fi technology.

The Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory, near Coonabarabran, has, since 1974, served generations of Australians and visiting overseas astronomers as one of the world's most productive observing facilities, in scientific output, publications and citations.

In 2010, the Australian government assumed full ownership of the telescope and established the Australian Astronomical Observatory as our national optical astronomy organisation. The AAO, as it is known, continued to serve the astronomy community as a division of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, providing our astronomers with excellent observing facilities and services.

At its North Ryde headquarters in Sydney, AAO scientists and technical specialists continued to develop innovative instruments and technologies to keep the telescope at the forefront of discovery, and provide sought-after scientific capabilities to overseas telescopes.

The 3.9 metre Anglo-Australian Telescope is no longer in the top tier of telescopes globally as it had been in its earlier decades. In the last two decades, larger, more powerful telescopes have been dominating overseas: the so-called 'eight-metre' class telescopes (a reference to their primary mirror diameters) and the even larger 'thirty-metre' class telescopes now under construction.

These large telescopes and their high-performance instruments extend the boundaries of scientific discovery, seeing farther into the cosmos, detecting fainter objects, and resolving finer details. These are the telescopes of the future.

Through its decadal planning process, the Australian astronomy community highlighted a pressing, unmet national need for a stable, long-term partnership in a multi-national optical observatory. Such a partnership would provide Australia's astronomers with access to the world's best suite of eight-metre class telescopes and, through this access, enable them to remain internationally engaged and relevant in addressing the most important scientific questions of the era.

Recognising the transformation in the global astronomy sector and this pressing need to maintain our place in the discoveries of the future, the government is prioritising Australia's partnership in front-line multi-national astronomy infrastructure and working with the university sector to ensure that our domestic capability supports this.

On 11 July 2017, the government entered into a 10-year Strategic Partnership with the European Southern Observatory.

ESO, as it is known, operates the world's foremost collection of optical-infrared telescopes on high mountain summits in Chile's Atacama Desert. This includes the renowned quartet of eight-metre telescopes that comprise the Very Large Telescope, with their many advanced scientific instruments to analyse the light they collect from distant reaches of the cosmos.

The Australia-ESO strategic partnership gives our astronomers long-term, stable access to ESO telescopes at La Silla and Paranal observatories in Chile.

It will enable our institutions to collaborate in developing new instrumentation, and open the door to Australian companies to tender competitively for ESO contracts at La Silla and Paranal.

The government recognises the ongoing value of the domestic astronomical facilities and the expert capability in the Australian Astronomical Observatory.

Prior to the government's optical astronomy measure in 2017-18, funding for AAO operations was due to terminate by 30 June 2020.

With strong, strategic backing from Australia's university sector, the government's optical astronomy measure is supporting the transfer of the AAO's critical domestic astronomical activities, assets and expert staff from the Commonwealth to a new university-led consortia.

The Australian National University will lead a consortium to continue to operate the Anglo-Australian Telescope into the mid-2020s. By extending its operations by a further five years, we are extending the benefits of the telescope as an observing platform to astronomers, a testbed for new instrumentation innovations, and a community treasure for Coonabarabran.

The government is working with Macquarie University to develop a national optical instrumentation capability that will continue and further develop the AAO's renowned instrumentation activities. This work will be supported by Astronomy Australia Ltd—a not-for-profit company that manages a range of research infrastructure programs for astronomy—through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy.

The new consortium in Sydney will link with other Australian centres of expertise to design and build excellent optical instruments for observatories here and overseas. The capability will have an industry focus to address technical challenges, commercialise Australian innovations arising from astronomy, and potentially develop new applications beyond astronomy.

The Australian Astronomical Observatory (Transition) Bill provides for a smooth domestic astronomy transition from the Commonwealth to the new consortia. It retains key astronomical functions of the Australian Astronomical Observatory Act 2010to provide a legislative basis for future government initiatives to continue to enable Australian astronomy engagement and excellence.

The government's optical astronomy measure will strengthen Australia's research and industry opportunities in the coming decade, extend the legacy of the Australian Astronomical Observatory and its global reputation, and ensure Australia remains at the forefront of global optical astronomy research.

I commend this bill to the chamber.

Debate adjourned.