Two months ago, Queensland-based start-up Gilmour Space suffered a setback in rocket testing when the oxidizer tank pressurization system malfunctioned just before lift-off.
Investigations later found the cause to be a sub-optimal routing of the oxidizer tank pressure feedback signal. This anomaly prematurely ended a test flight that would have launched the company’s One Vision rocket from the Queensland outback to a height of 20-30 kilometres above the Earth’s surface.
Yet chief executive Adam Gilmour, who recently won the 2019 Advance Awards in Advanced Manufacturing, this week told ADM that the company remains unfazed by the setback and continues to make steady progress towards a commercially-viable Australian launch capability.
“We had two major technologies to test. One was the launch platform, the other was the rocket. The mobile launch platform worked perfectly,” Gilmour said.
After a three day journey over rough roads into central Queensland, the road-legal autonomous launch platform took just 36 hours to set up.
“We pressed a button and it went through all the processes – the only manual part is the button to raise the tower, and you can then adjust the tower’s inclination and height with an automatic system,” Gilmour said.
Seconds before lift-off, however, the company’s safety systems went through an unexpected trial.
“After the anomaly, the automatic safety system kicked in. We had no injuries and very minimal damage to the launch structure,” Gilmour said. “You can’t get an anomaly much worse than an oxidizer tank blowing apart, and all we got was a steam cloud.
“It just proved our point about how safe hybrid fuel rockets are compared to other launch systems.”
In the time since the rocket containing the fault was developed, the company has brought more experienced people on board, meaning future iterations are unlikely to suffer similar failures. It also conducted an investigation with 15 resulting recommendations, all of which have since been implemented.
“We’ve been hiring pretty aggressively to build out our management team for all the major subsystems of the rocket,” Gilmour said. “The launch anomaly happened in the middle of that process, but we now have the full team in place, with more experienced engineers providing feedback into what we could do better.
“We’ve also been parallel designing the orbital vehicle, so a lot of the lessons we’re learning along the way with testing and building are being incorporated into the new vehicle.”
The company is now looking to future tests of the three main systems in the orbital vehicle: guidance, navigation and control (GNC); propulsion; and structures. In the next few weeks, the GNC team will start use low-powered rockets to conduct flight tests of the vehicle’s avionics, telemetry and software algorithms. In a year, the company will test the upper stage of the orbital vehicle from an undecided location, possibly in Queensland or SA.
“That should go past 100 kilometres,” Gilmour said. “It’ll be a high fidelity test of the full third-stage with all the GNC systems, thrust vector control, reaction control systems – we’re going to make two of them, and if the first one works, we’re going to bolt the second one onto the rocket.”
According to Gilmour, the majority of a rocket’s complexity is in the upper stage, meaning if that test is successful the company will be able to move quickly to a full orbital test.
If the company successfully progresses through the orbital test, it could potentially provide Australia with a sovereign mobile tactically-responsive space launch capability, providing constellations of communications and ISR satellites at a moment’s notice at orbits with a lifespan of between 2-5 years.
The company is also looking to participate in Australia’s $150 million commitment to the US Artemis program, which is looking to place people back on the Moon by 2024. Gilmour Space is heading to the International Astronautical Congress in Washington DC next week and is also in talks with contacts at NASA to find out where technological gaps exist – the same approach as that taken by the Australian Space Agency.
“It’s a combined effort and still early days, but we could participate in propulsion systems, lunar landers, satellite missions on a lunar orbit, resupply missions, that kind of thing,” Gilmour said. “Our propulsion system can survive in the vacuum of space for a long time.”