A commercial Taiwanese rocket will launch from a facility in South Australia on Friday, conditions permitting, marking a major milestone for the budding local space industry and another step towards Australia’s first permanent launch facility.
The facility is operated by Adelaide space tech Southern Launch, which has grown quickly to this year secure Australia’s only launch facility licence.
It will now send Australia’s first major commercial rocket into sub orbit from its Whalers Way complex 680km west of Adelaide as part of a test campaign to support the development of a permanent orbital launch facility at the same site.
“This is the biggest rocket that’s been launched in 40 years in Australia, so it’s a pretty big deal,” Space Industry Association of Australia chief executive James Brown told InnovationAus.
The 10-metre, two-stage sub-orbital Taiwanese rocket known as Hapith I is being tested in Australia for the first time and marks a significant step up from smaller test launches.
“It’s a significant size rocket,” Mr Brown said. “And to see Southern Launch get through the approvals process to get to the point where they can do this is very exciting for the industry.”
Southern Launch chief executive Lloyd Damp said he was excited “to be on the verge of launching Australia back into space”.
“This test launch represents the culmination of thousands of hours of preparation and planning, not only by everyone on our team but also at state and federal government levels,” he said.
“It also represents a world first for our launch partner tiSPACE which has developed next generation hybrid rocket propulsion technologies to power satellites into orbit.”
But he cautioned that the launch was a test and that “no matter what happens” on Friday, the company will “gain valuable data that will further propel us along our journey”.
“That’s what makes it so exciting. We’re hoping the weather remains favourable and that we can give a glimpse into the future of space for Australia.”
Last year, Southern Launch launched a 3.4-metre, 34 kilogram commercial space-capable rocket about 85km high, from its other test range in Koonibba, also in South Australia.
In March, the Adelaide based company received a licence to move to suborbital launches from the Koonibba range. It received a second licence in July for the Whalers Way test facility and a permit a month later to launch the Taiwanese rocket.
The Taiwanese rocket is much larger than previous tests and a genuine demonstration of commercial potential for Southern Launch, according to Mr Brown.
“There is commercial interest as well as defence and strategic interest [in the Australian space industry],” Mr Brown said.
“You’re seeing investors put money behind Australian companies that are building rockets for launches, including big sums of money in the case of Gilmour in Queensland. There is confidence that Australia can deliver this and there is commercial interest.”
It also represents the end of a “pretty complicated bureaucracy” of permits and regulatory approvals, which Mr Brown said needs to be smoothed out to encourage more launches.
“To get this launch done, I think Southern Launch had to speak to 27 different government agencies and departments. So, the smoother we can make that [process] the better. Because within a matter of years you’d expect we’d be doing these much more frequently,” Mr Brown said.
Hapith I is expected to launch from Whalers Way on Friday, some time between 6am and 6pm.
The rocket is also a test for the five-year-old tiSPACE, which manufactures its rockets in Taiwan and is the country’s first commercial space launch company. The Hapith I launch will be used to validate the rocket’s hybrid propulsion technology, guidance, telemetry and structure systems.
Last month, the Australian government said the Taiwanese company is considering bringing manufacturing of complete rocket systems to Australia.
While both countries’ space programs are growing, they still trail several other nations.
Australia established a national space agency in 2018 but it remains a part of the Department of Industry and its funding is not secure, according to the Space Industry Association, which is calling for the agency to be made a permanent statutory authority.
The agency has so far deferred controversial launch fees, but critics warn that when they are reinstated the cost could send local space companies overseas for launches.
Australia is also only in preliminary stages of a negotiating a Technology Safeguards Agreement with the US, which would make it easier for Australian firms to work with the global leader on space projects.
Southern Launch, which holds the only launch facility licence in Australia, also needs to overcome opposition from local residents, traditional owners and conservationists about the impact of its facility, which is located in a pristine coastal environment.
The public will not be allowed to access the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex during the tiSPACE rocket launch window for operational and safety reasons. Those keen to view the launch in person are being encouraged to watch from the Wanna lockout, located across the bay from the facility, approximately 30 minutes’ drive from Port Lincoln.
There will be no livestream of the launch, Southern Launch said.
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