By Adam Gilmour
Domestic launch capability would give Australia valuable access and a competitive edge in space.
ONE question we get often asked as a pioneer rocket company in Australia is: "Where will you launch from?" Short answer: We have a few launch sites ready in the US, but have have yet to lock into any arrangements in Australia.
The long answer is that there isn’t any commercial rocket test or launch range anywhere in the country today. Australia sent its last rocket to space 47 years ago from Woomera in South Australia; and it would appear that Gilmour Space Technologies' test rocket to the edge of space later this year could be the next. (It would also be the first privately-developed Aussie-made rocket to do so, pending flight approvals, etc.)
In the near term, our potential launch options are to:
Get special approval from the Australian Defence organisation to launch our test rockets from their Woomera test range; or
Find a suitable site in a remote part of the country, obtain necessary agreements from land owners and other relevant groups, and go through a very complicated approval process with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA, which has had limited experience with commercial rocket launches in Australia - for obvious reasons).
Compare this to the US, which has a slightly larger land mass (and notably, 14 times our population).
Their Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has a dedicated space division for launch approvals, as well as separate teams that cover development activities ranging from experimental suborbital launches to larger orbital insertion test flights.
The US also has at least eight different launch sites that cater to suborbital launches, and four that cater to orbital launches. Sites owned by the military and NASA are strongly committed to working with commercial launch companies, and have well-established procedures and teams to support them.
So, what next for Australia?
The Federal government is taking another serious look at the space industry, and is calling for public feedback by August 22.
What’s different this time (and not highlighted enough in our view), is thatAustralia could soon have its own domestic launch capability.
New rocket companies, like Gilmour Space, are offering small satellite launch services that could give us valuable access and a competitive advantage in space.
There are, however, two big hurdles that need to be addressed in order to get the space launch industry going in Australia.
1. We need a launch site
Yes, it would have to be in a very remote area a long way from a population center. (Thankfully, not a problem for our lucky country.)
The launch facility itself is not rocket science and need not cost tens of millions of dollars. In fact, we need only a few simple infrastructure components:
600m2 concrete pad, which would be able to handle a 120,000 Kg rocket.
A decent road, in order to transport the rocket to the site.
Shed or small building for the launch control team.
1,000 m2 shed for satellite/payload integration onto the launch vehicle.
Essential services like water and power supply.
Possibly a storage facility for common rocket fuels. (However, our launch vehicles do not require this, as we use room temperature propellants.)
Without the cryogenic propellant storage, we believe the launch site described above could be built at under $4 million. (Remember our goal is to benefit more from the US$335 billion global space economy.)
Location will be important.
For satellites entering equatorial orbits (such as geostationary or communications constellation orbits), the closer you are to the equator, the easier it is to attain orbit. This is because the Earth’s rotation gives your rocket an extra kick. Ideal locations for launch could be northern parts of Queensland and Northern Territory.
For orbits that go over the North and South poles (the polar orbits), we could launch from any location with no/low population density. Think bottom or top end of Australia and launching over the water.
The Northern Territory government announced recently they are looking at a launch site around the Gove peninsula. We think this is a very good location that could potentially support both equatorial and polar orbits (perhaps even for re-usable rockets in the future); and hope that they will be able to follow through with this in the very near future.
2. We need changes to space policy & regulation
Unfortunately, current government policy around launch approvals are so laborious and draconian that the only sensible and cost-effective option right now is to launch overseas.
For example, current regulations in Australia require companies to be insured for $750 million for any vehicle travelling above 100 Km. This translates into an insurance cost of $750,000 per launch, even for suborbital rockets launched from the most remote areas of the country.
In the US, insurance costs start at around US$20,000 for suborbital rockets, and generally top at under US$500,000 for very large orbital rockets.
To obtain launch approval today, a rocket company in Australia is required to own and operate its own launch site. Yet almost every other commercial launch company in the world (bar one) launches from government-owned sites.
For the Australian launch market to become commercially feasible, we should look to a risk-based methodology for determining launch insurance costs, similar to that used by the FAA. We should separate launch vehicle and launch site ownership. And we should simplify the launch approval process.
This process could be handled by a dedicated team within a new Australian Space Agency or CASA, and modelled on the FAA.
It's time to follow through
The good news is that some of these issues are being reconsidered in light of the federal government’s recent space industry feedback sessions. However, it is important that these changes follow through.
The ability to launch from our home ground is a competitive advantage that should not be underestimated.
It would give us direct access to space in a time when launch opportunities are scarce, political and expensive; provide high-value jobs up/downstream from rocket manufacturing and launch (e.g. for parts and equipment, launch site management, launch sales); and enhance national security by reducing Australia's heavy reliance on our allies for space-related infrastructure and launch.
It’s certainly an exciting time to be in space, and I look forward to launching our rockets one day soon… from Australia.