4 mins read 16 Feb 2021

Black Sky Aerospace makes Australian Made Rocket Fuel a reality

Queensland-based Black Sky Aerospace has taken another step forward in its plans to manufacture solid rocket fuel in Australia. This month saw the company successfully launch its first rocket-powered by fuel using a process designed and created here in Australia.

Black Sky Aerospace completed a successful static test late last year. Credit Black Sky Aerospace

With the continued growth of innovation within the Australian Space Industry, Queensland-based Black Sky Aerospace (BSA) has taken the next step towards making Australian sovereign launch capability a reality, by developing and launching a rocket carrying the company’s solid rocket fuel propellant - a first for Australia. The launch took place in January in outback Queensland. 

To achieve this goal, BSA took advantage of the Modern Manufacturing Initiative, securing a grant from the federal government's Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC). 

Why Sovereign Capability Matters

Black Sky Aerospace completed a successful static test late last year. Credit Black Sky Aerospace

Traditionally solid rocket fuels have had to be purchased overseas and imported where required, usually coming from India, China, or North America. Importing these kinds of substances can be challenging, expensive and time-consuming, especially in a world where logistics have been severely hampered. 

Having the ability to manufacture solid state fuels in Australia will provide not only manufacturing jobs but also a more robust supply chain and a potential export opportunity, essential to growing and sustaining the burgeoning space market.  

“Now that we have been able to manufacture locally it is going to open up opportunities for export, and obviously with the growing space industry it is vital that we have these capabilities right here in Australia”. BSA Chief Executive, Blake Nikolic. 

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews said it’s extremely exciting that Australia’s growing space industry is now supported by reliable, on-shore fuel manufacturing for the first time.

“This is a major national milestone which makes Australia more self-reliant and less dependent on other countries in the crucial space sector,” Minister Andrews said.

“With Australia now able to make our own solid-state rocket fuel, we’re building robust supply chains for the Australian space sector, as well as other connected industries like defence.

Traditionally rocket fuel comes as both liquid and solid fuels, both with their own advantages and disadvantages, however solid fuel is easier and safer to transport, store and use making it ideal for both export markets and rapid response launches. 

There is a definitive trend from both commercial and defence industries to be able to provide more responsive launch, and overall, space capabilities. With more international focus on satellite technology and use, and the price and barriers to entry to accessing space falling, launch can become a bottleneck where political priorities can impact upon capability. 

Having a sovereign manufacturing capability has the potential to ensure Australia’s needs in space are met, through faster, more agile supply chain networks and locally produced strengths. Sovereign launch capabilities could also lead to more international collaboration opportunities.

It’s just like cake

Testing the Space Launch System (SLS) solid rocket boosters during a two minute hot fire test in Sept 2020. The SLS solid rocket boosters are based upon those used during the space shuttle program. Credit NASA

Mr Nikolic said that art of making rocket fuel is just like making a cake.

“You get your egg, your flour, you milk, your water, your sugar. You mix that together and you end up with sludge. That is then set to cure and that’s how the rocket fuel comes out.”

Rocket fuels traditionally fall into three categories, liquid, solid, and hybrid. For example, the Space Shuttle Program used solid rocket boosters in addition to a liquid fuel system. Its solid rocket boosters were the largest ever made, providing the additional thrust required for launch, and are the basis of the current NASA Space Launch System (SLS). 

Liquid systems tend to be the most efficient as they can be controlled in real-time and even shut off, but in turn they end up very costly due to their complexity. They also use highly toxic fuels that can be difficult to store and manage. Solid rocket fuels, like the ones BSA are manufacturing, store well and can be manufactured well in advance of any required launch, which is why they are very appealing in particular to the defence industry.

Not only will the availability of Australian made solid-state fuel support our ability to build and launch rockets it will also provide access and support to many other projects from university research projects to larger-scale defence and commercial programs. 

Researchers are also starting to consider the impacts of rocket fuel upon the environment, and in particular, the upper levels of the atmosphere. Recently, scientists from the Australian National University discussed how they are trying to generate carbon neutral rocket fuel, to help counter the impacts caused to the environment by these vehicles.