Southern Launch and ATSpace announced on November 14th that they would be delaying the launch of their ‘Eco Test’ VS03 rocket mission. Inclement weather at the Whalers Way Launch Complex had damaged the ATSpace Kestrel I launch vehicle in Southern Australia, and the companies said that they needed time to assess and correct the damage.
While this was a setback for the specific launch, it’s only one small delay in the growth of the Australian space launch industry. And while their industry does aim to take advantage of Australia’s unique global position and geography, the way it’s shaping up is reminiscent of trends that we’re seeing here in North America. That includes new and innovative launch technologies, and also the building of diverse launch complexes that are geographically positioned to efficiently put satellites in different orbits as their customers’ needs dictate.
Southern Launch and the VS03
The ‘Eco Test’ VS03 test mission is a collaboration between four different space companies: Southern Launch, ATSpace, Asension, and Inovor Technologies.
Southern Launch is providing the launch facility at their Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex in Southern Australia. The rocket itself is provided by ATSpace: the Kestrel I launch vehicle, which is a 10-meter, two-stage, sub-orbital rocket with a max launch attitude of 350 km. Inovor Technologies will be providing the spacecraft, which will be carrying payloads provided by Asension and by Southern Launch. The flight’s trajectory will be over Australia’s Southern Ocean, and will (if successful) reach a height of over 200 km, with a flight time of approximately 10 minutes.
Interestingly, they’ll be tracking the rocket using “existing satellite phone technology,” instead of using traditional ground-based infrastructure. This mission is intended to serve as a test of those capabilities as well.
All of the companies involved are South Australian companies, though with a bit of a twist in one case. ATSpace is actually the sister company of Taiwan’s TiSpace, whose rockets were originally intended to be launched from Taiwan. When it became clear to TiSpace that launching from Taiwan wasn’t viable, but that they could get launch permission in Australia, they moved to Australia to test their HAPITH rocket (which was later renamed the Kestrel).
The first attempt (the VS01 mission) failed to launch but (according to Southern Launch CEO Lloyd Damp) “provided our teams with valuable data and insights that will further refine our launch capabilities” Between that test and the current VS03 test, TiSpace founded ATSpace as a sister company in Southern Australia, and ATSpace took over the Australian launches as an Australian company.
Unfortunately, though, there may be a significant delay before they actually get to launch their rocket. While the Kestrel was intended to launch on November 14th, a severe thunderstorm at Whaler’s Way caused damage to the rocket’s electrical systems and, so, the launch was scrubbed “until further notice.” Damp said that “the sheer volume of lightning strikes in the area was unprecedented and unfortunately caused damage to the vehicle,”,but that Southern Launch still “demonstrated the capability and experience our team has to work with our customers and provide a world-class launch site.”
While this scrub was a setback, Whaler’s Way still provides a competitive advantage to Southern Launch and their launch partners: their location. Whaler’s Way is on the southern coast of Australia, near the town of Port Lincoln and a comparatively short trip away from Adelaide. Due to its location, it’s potentially ideal for south-facing launches into polar or sun-synchronous orbits, which are becoming more and more important with (for example) Earth observation SmallSat constellations.
In this, it’s very similar to Canada’s own Maritime Launch Services (MLS), whose own position on the coast of Nova Scotia is equally suited for those types of orbits. Both launch services companies are still in the process of building up their launch complexes, with MLS looking to conduct its first suborbital test launch next year with Reaction Dynamics’ small-lift Aurora launch vehicle. MLS is already looking forward to launching the medium-lift Cyclone-4M, however, which may provide them their own comparative advantage.
Equatorial Launch Australia Working with NASA
What makes Australia different from Canada, however, is that it can not only provide polar launch from the South, but equatorial launch from the North as well. In fact, a competing commercially-owned launch site has emerged in Northern Australia called Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), and they’re very clear in their website’s promotional materials that “our key differentiator is the proximity of our Arnhem Space Centre (ASC) to the equator as it offers significant launch efficiencies.” This is the same reason why Florida is a key American launch location; but unlike Florida’s Space Coast, their Northern Australia location means that ELA “provides access to the full range of orbits and inclination.”
Unlike Whaler’s Way, ASC is a significant distance away from any larger towns or settlements, though it is near a small airport. Some more north-facing launch paths may also cross over Indonesia or Papua New Guinea, which may require some international negotiation before ELA can proceed on anything other than East-facing launches.
Still, while Southern Launch faces delays due to the storm, ELA has already had key successes. In July of 2022 NASA and ELA successfully launched three suborbital sounding rockets from ASC. The rockets’ payloads gathered data on Alpha Centauri A and B, and on the “interstellar medium” in the space between stars. In a release, ELA Chairman and Group CEO Michael Jones said that they are “really proud to have achieved a very rare feat – three successful launches in just 15 days. Even more so given the challenging wind conditions.”
ELA pointed out in earlier that these were “NASA’s first from a fully commercial spaceport,” enabling them to “conduct astrophysics studies that can only be done from the Southern Hemisphere.” As of a recent post on Twitter, they’re already looking forward to further development of Arnhem Space Centre, and are hiring new staff.
Gilmour Space Launching Hybrids in Queensland
Yet, perhaps owing to the country’s sheer size, Australians are developing a third launch site as well. Founded by former banker Adam Gilmour, Gilmour Space Technologies, like ELA, is based out of the Northern part of Australia. In their case they’re planning to launch their rockets from the Bowen Orbital Spaceport near Bowen, Queensland. While Bowen isn’t as far north as ELA’s site, it’s still more than suitable for equatorial launches, located on the northeastern coast of Australia.
What makes Gilmour notable on the Australian scene, however, isn’t so much location but vehicle. Unlike both ELA and Southern Launch/ATSpace, Gilmour is developing their own Australian-made launcher, the Eris Orbital Launch Vehicle. The Eris is a small-lift vehicle whose initial Block 1 variant can carry up to 215 kg in payloads into either sun-synchronous or equatorial orbits.
The Eris launcher is a hybrid-fuel launcher, however, much like Reaction Dynamics’ Aurora launcher. Their Sirius hybrid engines have already been tested on Gilmour’s previous RASTA suborbital launcher, as well as a number of static fires, with a final qualification test earlier this month. The Eris uses five of these engines for its first and second stages. The third stage will use their 3D-printed Phoenix LOx/Kerosine liquid fueled engine.
They’re also planning to test-launch next year, just like Reaction Dynamics. Gilmour’s test launch is intended to be an full orbital launch, however, which they billed in a recent release as “the country’s first orbital launch attempt of an Australian-made rocket.” While the date is as-of-yet undetermined, in a comment on their qualification test video Gilmour Space said that it would be “No earlier than end March 2023.”
So far, according to Crunchbase, they’ve received $132.3M in funding, including both Australian governmental grants, a $15M deal with the Australian Department of Defence to develop and launch satellites using their G-class satellite bus, and a $61M Series C round that was concluded in 2021. According to a recent story in Innovation Aus by Brandon How, they also have several customers already lined up besides the Department of Defence: including Perth’s LatConnect and US-based SpaceLink.
(For more on Adam Gilmour, check out his June 2019 interview with SpaceQ Editor in Chief Marc Boucher on the Space Economy Podcast.)
A Continental Program
All this reflects how Australia’s location and status as a continent-sized island country has put it in a unique position to provide a variety of different launch options for potential customers.
NASA’s choice to use ELA reflected their need for southern-hemisphere launch capability, and the success of the launches suggests they may return to Arnhem at some point in the future, along with others. Gilmour is already lining up customers for its own Australian-made hybrid engine launchers. And while Southern Launch may have had a setback, they have still become a hub for a nascent Southern Australia space sector, are still well suited for polar and sun-synchronous orbits, and can still take advantage of their comparative proximity to the large city of Adelaide as well as the smaller nearby city of Port Lincoln.
Put together, it’s a reminder that Australia’s seeming remoteness from the North American launch ecosystem that Canadians are focused on doesn’t mean Canadians need not pay attention to it. Far from it: Australia and Canada could easily end up being either partners or competitors in the global space economy, as both nations develop their respective launch facilities, startups, satellite companies…and even hybrid-engine SmallSat launch vehicles.