The Australian Space Launch Landscape
Australia is back on its way to returning rockets to the sky, after a hiatus that’s lasted decades. This time around, it’s the emerging commercial sector paving the way, with Southern Launch successfully launching two payloads to the edge of space this month.
Australia’s first attempt at a commercial rocket launch from South Australia’s Koonibba Rocket Range misfired earlier this month, going off with not a bang, but a whimper.
But the minor misstart has long been forgotten, as only a few days later, on September 19, Southern Launch successfully launched not one, but two of its commercial-class rockets, sending them to the edge of space.
“You should have seen those kids on Saturday when those rockets took off,” Southern Launch chief executive Lloyd Damp said.
“They were like ‘wow’, we did that”.
The launch ushered in a re-emergence of rockets launching from Australia, following several decades of reliance on overseas launcher providers to fulfill our local needs. Originally, Australia was the third nation in the world to launch satellites into space back in 1967 with the orbiting of the WRESAT, but much of our space industry quietened down thereafter.
Koonibba Community Aboriginal Council Chairman Corey McLennan said the community’s children “now dream of being astronauts, rocket scientists and helicopter pilots”. DEWC Systems and Southern Launch collaborated on the launch, and consulted with the local Aboriginal community.
Other companies are planning their own launches as Space 2.0 takes off and the nation builds a domestic launch capability. It’s a matter of national security, of economic uplift, and of inspiring children.
This first commercial rocket launch (from Southern Launch) was, as the industry is trying to be, nimble. The DART rocket weighs 34 kilograms, and is just 3.4 metres long. The DEWC Systems payload carried a bundle of sensors (a prototype radio frequency receiver unit developed by DEWC) to gather information on the atmosphere about 85 km above the Earth.
Building Space Capability
It’s hoped the technology will help the Royal Australian Air Force improve their situational awareness on the battlefield, as well as provide a sovereign capability.
That “sovereign capability” is often touted. What’s often left unsaid is the fear that an enemy state (often unnamed) will attack space-based assets, meaning Australia needs to be more self reliant.
That’s what the RAAF’s Project Jericho is about.
“Plan Jericho’s purpose is to give the Air Force the edge to protect Australia from technologically sophisticated and rapidly morphing threats,” Defence says.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said as space became “more congested and contested” the Federal Government is investing $7 billion over the next decade to boost the nation’s space capabilities.
“The rocket is unlike any rocket ever launched in Australia, and is part of what is known as ‘New Space’ technologies – small rockets carrying reduced-sized satellites using commercially available technologies,” she said.
There will be others. More suborbital launches, as well as orbital. Equatorial as well as polar.
Southern Launch Australia
Southern Launch is planning more sub-orbital launches at Koonibba, but also orbital launches at its Whaler’s Way site on SA’s coast. Mr Damp outlines the reasons Australians need their own space launch capabilities.
“If you look at the global environment with COVID-19, historical industries are being hit hard… and we in Australia need to look to new technologies that will create new jobs and new ways of working,” he said.
“This is an enormous market that Australia can tap into, that is de-risked already by companies like Southern Launch signing agreements (such as one already inked with South Korea’s Perigee aerospace).”
It will also mean Australia no longer has to rely on international players for space data for agriculture, border protections, and for defence, he said.
And the final reason? “National pride.”
Southern Launch had hoped to launch one rocket under the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, which is in charge of flight under 100km from the Earth’s surface, and one under the Australian Space Agency, which is everything above that.
The approvals process meant both launches were with CASA, but Mr Damp said they are working on an “incremental” approach.
Gilmour Space Technologies
Gilmour Space Technologies is planning to launch its first rocket in 2022. The Eris is a hybrid-propulsion rocket that will be used to put small satellites and other payloads into low Earth orbits.
They are hoping to use an orbital launch site at Abbot Point near Bowen, in Queensland for their first launch in 2022. That spot will allow them to get a 35kg payload into an equatorial orbit. But they are also planning a potential launch outside Australia.
“It’s not our preferred choice; but for us to launch at home, we need a lot more assurance, from an operational and regulatory standpoint, that an appropriate launch site will be ready for us by 2022,” James Gilmour, Chief Operational Officer and co-founder of Gilmour Space Technologies, said.
“On the bright side, I think we’re only a few steps away from Australia having its own indigenous space capability, and I really hope to see a lot more progress soon on those fronts,” he added.
He points to the advantage of Australian launch sites being near the equator, which helps access different orbits, and reduces the amount energy needed to get to orbit.
Mr Gilmour says there’s a bottleneck at the moment – while there are plans for putting tens of thousands of smallsats into space, there aren’t enough rockets, which is where domestic launches come in.
And, of course, there’s the sovereign capability.
“Australia is totally dependent on other countries for launch right now and is vulnerable in times of conflict and political rift,” he said.
Equatorial Launch Australia
ELA has already signed a contract with NASA to launch rockets from the Arnhem Space Centre, near Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory. That site, it says, will be able to cater for all orbits.
ELA, too, is worried about red tape. It had hoped to launch this year, but those plans have been delayed and ELA says its contract is at risk if the Australian Space Agency doesn’t make approvals “efficiently”.
ELA chief executive Carley Scott told ABC Radio in early September that there was “a lot at stake”, while ASA deputy head Anthony Murfett said the Agency couldn’t compromise on safety.
While those are the three main launch site contenders for now, institutions around Australia are working on their Space 2.0 plans. Whether that’s in launch projects, small satellite technology, the supply chain for NASA’s upcoming missions, or geeing up Aussie kids to become the astronauts and rocket scientists of the future.
South Australia Rocket Industry video credit: Department of Premier and Cabinet - SA
Southern Launch video credit: Royal Australian Air Force