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Year in review: 2018

By Adam Gilmour

2018 was a year of ‘fire and fury’ for new Australian rocket company, Gilmour Space Technologies, which is targeting to launch a range of low-cost, hybrid rockets for the global small satellite market starting in 2020.

“We started the year with a 45 kilonewton (kN) hybrid engine test fire in January, scaled it up to a record 80 kN in August and are now two months from a suborbital flight test of this orbital-class rocket engine,” said the company’s CEO and Founder, Adam Gilmour. This will be the company’s second launch since a successful sounding rocket test in mid-2016.

More Rockets, More Business

Despite being half a world away from most of today’s space launch activities, this small company based in Queensland, Australia, has joined the race to provide smaller and less expensive launch vehicles for the next generation of smallsats heading into Low Earth Orbits (LEO). Gilmour Space plans to launch Eris-100 in 2020, a three-stage commercial vehicle capable of carrying 100 kg. into LEO, to be followed by Eris-400 in 2021, a clustered-engine vehicle for payloads up to 400 kg.

“The small satellite revolution is gaining momentum globally, with thousands of small satellites slated to launch in the next five years,” said Mr. Gilmour. “However, these new players will be challenged by high launch costs and limited launch opportunities.” 

To address this global bottleneck, Gilmour Space is working to deliver dedicated and ride-share launches for smallsats weighing up to 400 kg., at prices that will enable more business and growth in this exciting new market.

In September, the company secured A$19 million (US$13.5 million) in a second round of funding from Australian and international investors, including Blackbird Ventures, Main Sequence Ventures and 500 Startups, bringing their total investment to date to A$26 million.

“I believe our progress so far puts us at a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of six, well ahead of most small launch competitors globally. The fact that we’ve come this far on relatively little funding is also a testament to our innovative engineering and low cost manufacturing capability,” said Mr. Gilmour. “This latest round will help us build our team, and give us the safe runway we need to launch our first commercial hybrid rocket to orbit in 2020.”

Additional Highlights

In 2018, Gilmour Space signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to collaborate on potential space research and technology development initiatives; two space veterans were appointed to the firm’s board of advisors — former NASA deputy administrator, Professor Dava Newman, and former NASA astronaut and shuttle commander, Colonel (Retired) Pamela Melroy.

According to Professor Newman, who is currently Apollo Program Professor of Astronautics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), “We are at the crossroads in commercial space with new small launch vehicles, and it’s great to see Gilmour Space becoming a serious new player in this global market.

To support their launch efforts, the company also began work on a mobile launch platform for their rockets this year. “Australia is a new entrant into the global space scene, and we don’t have a launch site yet. As such, we’ve had to build one of our own, which took more time than expected with our small team; however, we’re at the final assembly stages right now,” said Mr. Gilmour. “Interestingly, this capability for remote and responsive launch is one that other countries like the US, Europe and UK are also trying to develop.”

The Road Ahead

Looking forward into 2019, Mr. Gilmour believes that the New Space industry will need to see more small launchers coming online from 2019, as well as higher cadences from existing launch companies.

“More rockets means more business, and that will drive the small sat market to new heights,“ he noted.

“I’m also encouraged to see continual venture capital investments into the New Space industry for both launch vehicles and satellite services. We think 2019 will be a year in which space agencies (including those in the U.S., Europe and Japan) will start to ramp up their efforts to work with small private space companies. There will likely be a record number of payloads heading to the moon surface in 2019, which would be a great sign of things to come.

“Australia, too, is seeing the dawn of a New Space Age, with a newly established space agency and key amendments in legislation that will enable domestic launches,” the company’s CEO noted.

“Ultimately, however, what customers want are reliable, timely and affordable launches that get their payloads to where they need them to be. There are a lot of eyes on us at the moment, but that’s fine...because we plan to deliver,” Mr. Gilmour concluded.

Bookings for launch will open in 2019.

(This article was first published in SatMagazine’s edition of 2018 Year In Review.)

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