Australia’s race to space heats up as another Queensland rocket firm prepares to launch


April 20, 2019 08:25:27

Queensland is set to take another bold leap forward in the nation’s race for space when a Gold Coast start-up company aims to fire its first rocket 40 kilometres into the stratosphere from a remote location outside Mount Isa next month.

Key points:

  • Gilmour Space Technologies and BlackSky Aerospace say rocket launches will be a monthly occurrence within five years
  • Queensland is vying for space business with South Australia and the Northern Territory
  • The Australian Space Agency says it wants to treble the nation’s $3.9b space economy

The anticipated launch comes hot on the heels of another sub-orbital launch by BlackSky Aerospace in the southern Queensland outback last November that carried Australia’s first commercial payload.

Queensland is vying with South Australia and the Northern Territory for a slice of a burgeoning space business expected to turn Australia into a regional rocket hub.

Within the next five years, rocket launches from Australian shores will likely be a monthly — even weekly — occurrence.

BlackSky director Blake Nikolic said his Jimboomba-based firm was developing propulsion fuels as well as rockets, and working with the US Government on an orbital rocket program.

He said BlackSky had “a series of launches” planned for later this year.

“Realistically within the next five years we’re probably looking at 40 to 60 launches a year,” Mr Nikolic said.

For Gold Coast firm Gilmour Space Technologies, next month’s launch from a private property in Queensland’s Gulf country will be the culmination of three years of research and development.

The company began life three years ago when Singapore-based banker Adam Gilmour decided to chase a dream with the backing of venture capital.

Gilmour Space Technologies has spent almost $6 million designing and building its nine-metre sub-orbital test rocket One Vision and the mobile launch tower that will send it into the heavens.

“The plan is, we’re going after the small satellite market,” Mr Gilmour said.

“There’s about to be thousands of small satellites launched into orbit. It’s begun already and it’s going to accelerate.”

These satellites will service a growing demand in space-based broadband, GPS, ground tracking as well as increasing wireless connectivity for the internet of things.

“Once we start manufacturing rockets to do production runs, we’re going to need 200-300 employees for the initial batch,” Mr Gilmour said.

“It could go up, if we’re successful, to more than 1,000 employees, so it’ll be a very big factory.”

More local jobs could be expected to follow as satellite companies and other space-related enterprises relocate to be near rocket companies and launch sites.

Satellites are such a big deal that the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has just launched a SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre.

QUT professor Kerrie Mengersen said Earth observation satellite data was being used in agriculture, mining, transport, logistics, the environment, urban and social issues and monitoring sustainable development goals.

“We need good ways to manage and analyse the data, and this is where we come in,” Professor Mengersen said.

Mr Gilmour said he is keen for his company to stay in Queensland, which offers both polar and equatorial orbital launch options.

“Absolutely — if we get a launch site here, that’ll definitely keep us here,” he said.

While there are businesses already planning to build launch facilities in South Australia and the NT, there are currently no such moves in Queensland.

Mr Nikolic agreed he would like to see launch facilities in Queensland, but described them as “a nicety” rather than a necessity.

“There’s no perfect launch site,” he said.

“The NT is good for equatorial launches, South Australia is good for polar launch — Queensland is a little bit of both, but it depends on what site you choose.”

But Mr Gilmour said he saw Queensland launch facilities as very important to their operation.

“For us it’s an absolute priority and imperative — we need a launch site to launch from,” he said.

“It is very traditional that rocket companies base a lot of their activities around a launch site.

“So we’re basically going to follow where a launch site gets built. We think the best place for that is Queensland — we’ve done a lot of trajectory analysis and looked at where all the orbits have to go.”

Mr Gilmour said South Australia was currently working hardest to secure their business.

“It’s not going to go to all the orbits we need to, but initially for some of our first commercial contracts it’ll do the job, so we’ll have no choice.”

Both Gilmour and BlackSky have both working closely with the Queensland Government as it develops a blueprint for the space business.

Earlier this year, a Queensland parliamentary inquiry into the space industry recommended the Government identify suitable sites for a launch facility.

State Development Minister Cameron Dick said the Government was keen to work closely with the Australian Space Agency (ASA) in developing the industry.

“The Palaszczuk Government is determined to develop a strong, viable, nation-leading space industry and we have been in discussion with several proponents, including Gilmour Space Technologies, to grow the industry,” Mr Dick said.

Last year, a Federal Government space industry report flagged the construction of rocket launch facilities as a “critical need”.

ASA deputy head Anthony Murfett told the ABC the nation’s space economy was already worth about $3.9 billion a year, and his agency wanted to triple that.

But the agency is stopping short of offering financial incentives or subsidies to help get those rockets off the ground.

“We’ll focus at this stage on the regulatory activities ensuring safe operations of launch activities in Australia,” Mr Murfett said.

Gilmour Space Technologies has letters of intent from mini-satellite makers in Japan, the US and Australia, and the company is being wooed by rocket launch sites in the Philippines, Sweden, Norway and the US.

“What we see is there’s not enough rockets to take those small satellites into orbit and there’s a big bottleneck,” Mr Gilmour said.

“So we’re addressing the bottleneck, and our other secondary mission, which is critical, is to do it for very cheap cost.

“We have very simple rockets that we can build for very low cost and we think that’s going to differentiate us.

“We don’t have to beat everybody in the world, we actually think there needs to be around 10 rocket companies of a similar size to us operating around the world to satisfy the demand.”















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