If you’re looking to build a spaceport, Australia is a good place to start. The country is uniquely suited to hosting a launch site.
The NT is only 12 degrees short of the equator, granting rockets a boost of almost 500 kilometres per hour compared to launches from sites at 45 degrees, whilst the southern edge of Australia places polar orbits in commercial reach. A vast, sparsely populated continent makes land comparatively easy to find, and vast stretches of ocean to the east and south lower the risk posed by jettisoned early stage rockets. The country’s well-developed infrastructure and burgeoning space expertise are the icing on the cake.
So why don’t we have a spaceport?
Until recently, direct access to space was the prerogative of governments with large budgets – namely the US, Russia, China, and a European consortium. Now, however, the emerging commercialisation of launch capabilities and the miniaturisation of satellites have allowed relatively small players to join the game.
US company Rocket Lab has built a spaceport on NZ’s North Island, and the possibility of a similar Australian launch site is now tantalisingly close. Two companies are leading the charge – Gilmour Space Technologies, which is looking to achieve low-cost launches from a site in Queensland, and Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), which is hoping to build a spaceport near Nhulunbuy in the NT.
“Rockets right now are very expensive, and we have innovative new engine technology that means we can produce rockets cheaper than anybody else on the planet,” CEO of Gilmour Space, Adam Gilmour, told ADM. “It’s a liquid oxidizer and a solid fuel, in much simpler engines.
“For a small satellite to go to space now, it costs about $50-70,000 per kilogram. We’re talking about $30-35,000 per kilogram. We go for simplicity rather than complexity. It’s not a high performance rocket, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all about cost.”
Gilmour aims to use these simple, cheap rockets to capitalise on the growing small satellite replacement market, which will be used for broadband internet, Internet of Things, communications, and other services.
“There’s a forecast for more than 15,000 small satellites to launch in the next five years, and they’re all going to low earth orbit with a limited lifespan, so they need to be continually replaced,” Gilmour said.
Location, location, location
ELA, on the other hand, intends to reduce cost by capitalising on Australia’s proximity to the equator.
“It’s a significant point,” ELA CEO Carley Scott said to ADM. “It gives us an internationally competitive position because if you’re within 15 degrees either side of the equator, you get extra rotational velocity from the ground speed of the Earth. So it’s less fuel and more payload per mission.
“We’ve got the low risks of a remote location, but it’s a mining town so there’s a deep water port that’s already established, city quality airport, main township, roads, and fibre optic cable.
“Ideally we’d be doing launches into space next year.”
Defence, of course, has taken interest. A spaceport with an ability to rapidly replace small satellites in low earth orbit also has the ability to offset the risk to communication and navigation satellites posed by adversary anti-satellite capabilities.
“They’re interested in tactically responsive space technology,” Gilmour said. “The ability to send satellites up on short notice. They’re telling us what they need – 24 to 48 hours’ responsiveness for communications and earths observation capabilities. Nothing on EW as yet.”
All this, however, could be cut short by a proposed government plan to charge launch providers $250,000 for a license, potentially per launch.
“There’s been strong pushback from the industry,” Gilmour said. “Other countries charge nothing. It means we’d shift a good whack of our business to launch from overseas. We’re already in talks with the Kennedy Space Centre, there’s no regulatory bottleneck for us to do that through a US subsidiary. We’d have no hesitation to go there.”
“The cost recovery model that government has put to us is not appropriate for the state of industry development in Australia,” Scott told ADM. “If [the cost] is put forward as it was proposed initially, it will inhibit growth. It means we’re less competitive than overseas, where they don’t have those fees.
“It’s partly because they’re not scaled – there’s no tie to how to deliver a quality outcome within the fees proposed. To have fees like that put in to launch services in Australia would be a considerable concern.”
Should the legislation go ahead, Australia’s unique advantages for prospective launch sites may not be enough to off-set the prohibitive license costs. Start-ups looking to put satellites into orbit may find NZ to be a more attractive market.
Rocket Lab, facilitated by legislative support from Wellington, has already conducted launches from the North Island and could easily lure Australian space companies across the Tasman.
“The NZ government played an important role in creating a modern, forward-thinking regulatory framework that aims to enable a strong space economy,” Sandy Tirtey, Rocket Lab's Director of Business Development Australia, said.
“The key to providing better access to space is launch frequency. Launch Complex 1 in NZ offers clear skies and seas, as well as a wide range of inclinations from sun-synchronous through to 39 degrees, and site is licensed for up to 120 launches per year - which is more launch availability than you can get in some entire countries.
“We're seeing some truly innovative satellite technology coming out of Australia. With a proven launch vehicle and an established launch site just next door, it's never been easier for Australian innovators, researchers and educational institutions to get their technology to orbit.”
This article first appeared in the April 2019 edition of ADM.