Three years since the founding of the Australian Space Agency, the country is moving increasingly closer to truly sovereign space capabilities. This progress has been driven by industry – by companies that innovate and disrupt, forcing government to catch up.
Two of those companies are Adelaide-based DEWC Systems, which specialises in electronic warfare, and launch provider Gilmour Space Technologies, based in Queensland. The two companies recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding that could herald a truly Australian tactically responsive space capability.
DEWC Systems is the first Australian company to launch a payload on a space-capable rocket from Australia. It is creating an Australian space-based electronic warfare (EW) capability called MOESS that it hopes will provide a step-change in the ADF’s warfighting capacity.
“In broad terms, militaries are trying to be not seen whilst trying to identify where the adversary is,” CEO Ian Spencer said to ADM. “One of the things, for example, that will give adversaries away is their radars. The radar has to emit enough energy to hit the target and bounce all the way back to the receiver. But as energy goes through the atmosphere it attenuates and decreases, so radar emissions can be picked up twice as far as they can see.
“So it’s helpful to be able to passively detect and identify what those radars are – it allows us to understand what forces are in the area and what their intentions are.”
However, DEWC Systems is also cognisant of the need to avoid introducing another vulnerability into the ADF’s lines of information. The answer is a constellation of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
“A constellation of satellites is robust and resilient, so should you lose some nodes in that network, the network will still function,” Spencer said. “Everything we do helps improve our use of the electromagnetic spectrum and degrades opponents’ use of the electromagnetic spectrum.
“That’s what electronic warfare is all about: using the same spectrum that we all need to communicate and see, but trying to be in control of that space, or at least understand what’s happening within it.”
According to Spencer, cost-effectiveness is the main advantage of placing a constellation of small satellites in LEO, although the orbital patterns are becoming more congested.
“In some orbits we can get better worldwide coverage than from a geostationary orbit,” Spencer said. “So that’s a great advantage, that ability to get it up there quickly and get the satellite wrapping around the world at 8km/second to see what it’s looking for.
“Obviously the downside is it’s a very congested area of space at the moment. There’s a risk that the satellites could be kinetically damaged or potentially jammed.”
However, congestion goes both ways. Whilst heavy traffic represents a risk to satellites in the constellation, it also allows them to hide from adversaries.
“One satellite is so much harder to find amongst thousands of these things that are floating around,” Spencer said. “It’s a tree in a forest.”
If successful, DEWC Systems could pave the way for a tactically responsive space capability in Australia. Imagine, for example, an Australian warship on deployment in the Pacific with a sudden need to discreetly see over the horizon. It could order an Australian satellite to look down and provide unrivalled situational awareness.
“We’ve tried to design the orbits to create near-real-time assistance everywhere,” Spencer said. “And there’s other techniques the ADF could probably bring to bear, because the satellite will be connected to the system-of-systems.”
Currently, MOESS is in the third phase of development, which will place satellites in orbit to demonstrate the capability.
“There’s a global shortage of computer chips and components which has given us a bit of grief, but Phase 3 will get the satellites into orbit,” Spencer said. “They’ll passively sense radio frequency emissions and communicate in a network fashion. That allows us to do a lot of classification and processing right at the edge of the sensor, so should something happen to the network and the signal to the other satellites is interrupted, each one will continue to work until it can communicate again. And Australian commanders will have priority tasking of this system.”
To get the satellites into space, DEWC Systems is working with a number of launch providers, including Southern Launch (with whom they launched Australia’s first space-capable rocket late last year) and Gilmour Space Technologies in Queensland.
“Australia is an ideal spot to do this,” Spencer said. “We’re large enough continentally that we can launch from say Queensland or the Northern Territory and access a lot of inclinations around the equator. We’ll be able to access polar and sun synchronous orbits, which are really good orbits for certain applications.”
Spencer’s ambitions, however, go far beyond this first satellite network. He believes Australia is uniquely positioned to capitalise
on the growing commercial space economy, as long as the government starts to recognise the opportunity.
“I speak to a lot of business leaders in the industry and in Defence and the appetite is really high. We have the ability to show to the world that we’re building rockets here, we’re launching them here, we’ve got ground stations here, we’re managing it all here – that’s going to bring in a heap of overseas customers,” he said. “But it requires disruption. Sometimes it just takes a bunch of companies coming together and stepping forward.
“Then the onus goes onto government then to explain why they don’t want to back you.”
As DEWC introduces new electronic warfare capabilities into the ADF’s toolbox, Gilmour Space Technologies is forging ahead with their plans for a sovereign Australian launch capability.
Founded just eight years ago by brothers Adam and James Gilmour, the company is one of Australia’s first movers towards a sovereign launch capability through a three-stage launch vehicle called Eris that will be capable of taking small satellites into LEO.
This year the company started off with a bang, announcing a successful hotfire of the world’s largest single-port hybrid rocket engine. The 20-second test generated 9.1 tonnes of thrust and marked a major milestone in the journey towards an orbital launch in the middle of 2022 and a second launch months later.
“We’ve been working very hard to finish off the rocket,” Adam Gilmour said to ADM. “We’ve gone past the final design phase and we’re into the manufacture and qualification testing of all of the components of the rocket. We’ve also started to assemble the first rocket.”
The testing program is rigorous. Each component is taken through its paces; the engine, the fuel tanks, the vehicle fuselage, and the software behind it all.
“The fuel tanks are a big test. We had to manufacture them and then pressure test them,” Gilmour explained. “Then there’s the bigger vehicle fuselage. We’ll get that fabricated and then put it through a structural test facility which simulates the forces that will act on it in flight. That’s ahead of us.
“We’ve got to test all the software in simulations to make sure it works properly. Then, on the avionics side, we’ll essentially place all the avionic systems on a table and hook them all up as if they were really in the rocket, put the software into it and then simulate going into space to make sure all the avionic systems and the switches and the battery packs all perform as they should. We’re in the middle of doing that now.”
The company has set itself the ambitious target of completing the rocket before the end of the year, which Gilmour acknowledged is a ‘stretch’ but one he is optimistic that company will achieve.
“We are hopefully going to have the far majority of the rocket completed by the end of the year,” Gilmour said. “That is definitely a stretch. It’s going to take a lot of effort to get there, and we want to finish qualification testing of all of our subcomponents so we can meet that goal.”
As for any new space company, the outcome of that first launch will be uncertain – more than half of first flights globally fail, according to Gilmour. Nonetheless, the rocket’s path to space will plot out a learning curve in real time.
“We’ll have various milestones of success,” Gilmour said. “If the engines turn on, that’s a tick. If it leaves the pad, that’s another tick. If the first stage finishes its burn, that’s a big tick. If you get a staged separation, that’s another big tick, and so on.
“Hopefully we get through it all the first time; but as long as we get through most of it, that’s a tremendous learning curve for us.”
The launch site is set as Abbott Point in Queensland, chosen following three years of research and coincidental alignment with the preferences of the Queensland Government, which is helping to approve its development.
“It’s one of the safest places you can launch from the eastern seaboard and it’s also the best location in terms of orbital positions,” Gilmour said. “The Queensland Government does want the site to have potential for multiple users and we know it has that potential.”
If the rocket makes it to space, it will carry a large percentage of Australian-made parts, manufactured in Helensvale on the Gold Coast. But Gilmour is aiming for a Modern Manufacturing Initiative to locally source and manufacture components that currently come from overseas – such as rocket nozzles, the end domes on the fuel tanks, pumps and valves.
“We want to bring a lot of these overseas components into Australia and be manufactured here,” Gilmour said. “We’re really hoping that we can get access to the Modern Manufacturing Initiative, which will enable us to bring onshore the manufacture of a lot of these components that are currently made in Europe and America and Japan.”
Gilmour Space is working with DEWC Systems on technologies that could support the MOESS system, including launch options. The company also has a satellite ‘bus’ in development to help future customers get their hardware into space.
“One of the advantages we have against some of our competitors is they’re making buses that fit into their own rockets, whereas our bus is quite agnostic and is able to be launched on anybody’s rocket,” Gilmour said. “So customers don’t have to feel like they’re locked into launching with us if they use the bus.”
Whilst the company has had a productive year, including a $61 million Series C round capital raise (the largest-ever private equity raise by an Australian space company), Gilmour is emphatic that the government can and should do more to fund local space industry.
“Nothing has changed. I’ve raised $61 million from private investors. We’ve built our team to 85 so far this year. We’ve taken our technology up significantly and yet there’s still no direct funding from the government or space agency,” Gilmour said. “Good leadership is a technology roadmap and then funding associated with companies that are developing the technology.”
What kind of investment would make a tangible difference to Australia’s space economy?
“For us, anything north of $10 million would make a meaningful difference,” Gilmour answered. “I’ve raised enough money to build and launch four rockets. I have not raised enough money to buy any of the machinery or co-invest in build new technologies or capabilities that will help me bring the supply chain in from overseas into Australia. The current business as usual is not getting the job done.”