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To launch or not to launch, from Australia...

By Adam Gilmour

That is the question: Should we develop our own space launch industry in Australia, or choose to use capabilities available elsewhere?  

QLD, AUSTRALIA - The ‘New Space’ storm that is sweeping across the world has landed in Australia. After decades of being in the sidelines, Australia has established an industry-focused space agency to triple its space revenues to $12 billion a year and add 20,000 new jobs by 2030.

With strong bi-partisan support and over 380 space-related companies and startups -- now working on everything from earth observation, communications and big data analysis, to small satellite manufacturing and rocket launches — it does look like the beginnings of a New Space Age Down Under.

But Canberra, we have a problem...

“Put simply, there is a serious bottleneck for launches globally, particularly for small payloads; and we will need to get our tech ‘up there’ before we can start using them down here on Earth.

Australia currently has no domestic access to space – no commercial launch sites (Woomera is only for military use), nor any of its own orbital launch vehicles. Most of our satellites are made and launched overseas, costing us hundreds of millions of dollars (or billions over the years) — money that could now, with the emergence of new space companies in Australia, be spent creating more local jobs, exports, and taxable income.

Can we do it? 

The good news is that new launch capabilities are being developed in Australia. Gilmour Space Technologies, for one, is a Queensland-based rocket startup that has raised over $26 million in private investments to meet global demand for more and cheaper launches; and we are on track to launch our first low-cost commercial rocket for small satellites in 2020.

Without a place to launch, however, our situation is akin to being an airliner without an airport, a train without a station, a ship without a port…

What we need is a launch site

Recent amendments to key legislation now allow for commercial space launches from Australia, setting the stage for federal/state government and space agency to provide that ‘last mile’ access to space. After all, launch sites (or launch pads, launch ranges, spaceports) are considered to be national infrastructure by the countries that have them globally.

Fortunately, there are locations on the Queensland coastline that could offer more fuel-efficient orbital inclination choices than any other continental launch sites on the planet; and many other locations in Australia could be suitable for polar and/or suborbital launches.

Given that space is a global market, and that thousands of small satellites are expected to be launched over the next five years, it is likely that a small and well placed launch site here would also attract other small launch companies from Europe and Asia.

Should we do it?

State and federal governments have understandably been cautious about setting up a domestic launch site, citing experiences in the past (during the 'Space 1.0' era) when pitches were made for multi-hundred million dollar projects that ended up going nowhere. Back then, of course, rockets cost billions of dollars to develop, and hundreds of millions to launch.

Fast forward to today and the story is very different. Thanks to smaller satellites and 'Space 2.0' technologies, rockets now cost hundreds of millions to develop and tens of millions to launch.

That’s 10 times cheaper — imagine buying a brand new car for $2,000 instead of $20,000.

Launch site costs have also reduced by a factor of 10 or more. NASA recently developed one for small rockets at the Kennedy Space Centre in the US for around US$20 million, and that included a lot of expensive cryogenic fuel transportation technology. Similar numbers have been cited for launch sites in New Zealand and the UK.

Here’s how Australia could do it

For the cautious: Build a small, low-cost rocket launch range for under $10 million (including construction, maintenance and operating costs); and expand it over time. 

Strategically located in rural coastal Australia, this basic launch site, measuring roughly 300 by 800 meters, might employ 20 staff initially and look something like the Kennedy Space Center's launchpad for small rockets. 

We believe this 'upstream' investment would allow Australia to tap into a bigger slice of the US$350 billion global space pie. And as operations ramp up (to 12 rocket launches a year by 2022, as we hope), nearby communities would further benefit from increased economic activity, new jobs and opportunities — from launch site operations and space tourism, to co-located satellite servicing and space manufacturing. 

As Federal Minister for Industry, Science & Technology, Karen Andrews said it: “While the opportunities arising from space industries are almost as limitless as space itself, the benefits from a growing space industry are very local.” 

Let's make it so

Australia has the unique opportunity now to 'run between  the legs of giants' -- to build our own launchpad to space, and potentially kickstart a billion dollar domestic launch industry. 

Will we be on time to grab this opportunity to develop our local launch capability? Or will we let it go? 

Our vote: GO for launch!

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