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4 mins read 19 Apr 2021

Australia’s first commercial rocket testing facility announced

The University of Southern Queensland has partnered with Rocket Technologies International, who own a sandstone quarry in Helidon, near Toowoomba, to build Australia’s first privately owned rocket testing site. The site is the first of its kind outside of the Australian Defence Force.

The Helidon Rocket Test Site is in a Sandstone Quarry in the Lockyer Valley, West of Brisbane. Credit - University of Southern Queensland

The University of Southern Queensland (USQ) has formed a new  partnership with  Queensland-based Rocket Technologies International to support the growing Australian space industry, and in particular work towards Australia’s sovereign launch capability. The Helidon Rocket Test Site, is built in a sandstone quarry owned by Rocket Technologies International and will be used to complete static rocket engine tests.

USQ is already home to the Mt Kent Observatory and the MINERVA-Australis telescope, it also has one of the countries leading Institutes for Advanced Engineering and Space Sciences, which specialises in astrophysics, lunar and planetary sciences, hypersonics, rocketry and advanced materials. In a 2019 announcement, USQ Vice-Chancellor Professor Geraldine Mackenzie said that the university was “perfectly poised to play a defining role in the new era and to drive innovation in Australia’s growing space sector”. 

In that same year USQ signed an MOU with Gilmour Space Technologies to collaborate on research. According to the executive director of USQ’s institute of advanced engineering and space sciences, professor Peter Schubel, “USQ’s unique facilities such as the long duration Hypersonic wind tunnel, solid rocket fuel manufacturing facility, composite cryotank expertise and Mt Kent Observatory place USQ as a leading space research institute in Australia, aligned to needs of the fast paced space industry”. 

The recent announcement of the Helidon Rocket Test site will clearly support the University’s ongoing leadership within Australian space research. 

“It’s unprecedented in Australia to have this kind of access” said USQ Senior Research Fellow, Dr Fabian Zander about the site. 

The site, in the Lockyer Valley, west of Brisbane, is part of a sandstone quarry owned by Rocket Technologies International. The facility currently has one horizontal test bed, rated to 200kN, which will be used to test and verify the performance and function of the rockets. 

“The space industry is sort of booming as everyone knows, and Australia really wants to be part of that,” said Zander. 

Being able to complete rocket testing locally and gain fundamental information such as thrust, combustion pressure and casing temperature is a pivotal and important part of the rocket development process according to Schubel. 

Local Industry

At the Helidon Rocket Test Site (From left) Professor David Buttsworth (Thermofluids Engineering), Dr Fabian Zander (USQ Senior Research Fellow), Byrenn Birch (USQ School of Mechanical Engineering), Professor Peter Schubel (Executive Director, USQ’s Institute for Advanced Engineering and Space Sciences), Nick Green (PFI Aerospace). Credit - University of Southern Queensland

PFi Aerospace, a company based in Darra, providing machine automation systems for industrial operations are one of the first to utilise Helidon Rocket Test Site. The manufacturing company has developed a fully functioning rocket motor for its HAILI Rocket Stem in Schools program.

The Hybrid All Inclusive Learning Instrument or HAILI has been developed in collaboration with TAFE Queensland as part of their initiative to encourage more students to undertake studies in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). 

“This site is a purpose-built site, with excellent facilities and geographically ideal for the majority of Australia’s rocket manufacturing industry. Australia needs sites like this if we are going to get involved more in the space industry. It is a critical piece of infrastructure,” said Nick Green, CEO of PFi Aerospace and Space Industry Advisor for the Australian Industry & Defence Network (AIDN) Queensland. 

This local capability has the potential to be a game changer for local industry with Schubel saying that “They can enter the space race, they can develop technology for Australia.”

A PFi Aerospace Rocket Engine. PFi Aerospace are one of the first companies to utilise the site. Credit - University of Southern Queensland

According to Zander the site has the opportunity to provide practical experience. “Internationally, the space industry is booming. A large part of that is propulsion, including rocketry and high-speed flight, so we are looking at the fundamentals of that, constructing capability within Australia and educating a new generation of people to work in that field.”

Owner of the Helidon site, Allan Payne, agrees going even further saying, “the most important thing is educating the future to get our next generations thinking the right way”. He went on to say, “I am investing in space research as it is the future. The opportunities are endless.”