A successful rocket launch by a New Zealand company has signaled that space is “open for business”, with several Australian companies looking to follow in its footsteps.
But a leading space entrepreneur has said that a lack of support and funding from the federal government has put Australian startups at a disadvantage and allowed our Trans-Tasman rivals to reach the milestone first.
New Zealand and US company Rocket Lab this week successfully launched a rocket carrying three small satellites from its own commercial launchpad on New Zealand’s north island, marking a “new beginning in the era of commercial access to space”, its chief executive Peter Beck said.
“Reaching orbit on a second test flight is significant on its own, but successfully deploying customer payloads so early in a new rocket program is almost unprecedented,” Mr Beck said.
“Rocket Lab was founded on the principle of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it. Today we took a significant step towards that.”
The test launch saw the New Zealand and US-based company launch a rocket carrying three satellites into orbit, to be used for tracking shipping, weather and imaging.
It was done from the company’s own private launchpad in the Mahia Peninsula, with Rocket Lab planning to another launch this year.
Eventually the company says it may launch up to 50 rockets per year.
Delta-V Space Alliance founder Tim Parsons said the launch is a “huge moment globally”.
“No-one has put as many launch system elements together so fast and so cheaply into a commercial-ready system and achieved orbit on their second flight,” Dr Parsons told InnovationAus.com.
“And we’re talking [about] a privately-funded startup company here. Peter Beck and his team are to be massively congratulated and celebrated for showing what’s possible.”
“We have an ultra-low cost launcher on our doorstep from someone who is as close to a sibling of Australia as you can get. It’s going to be great for Aussie space businesses, researchers and government.”
The launch marked an “important milestone” for the growing private space sector, Saber Astronautics founder Jason Held said.
“Australian startups are starting later in the game but you can expect quicker ramp-ups because Rocket Lab’s success has opened people’s eyes here to what is possible,” Dr Held told InnovationAus.com.
“It’s a sign of the times overall with new launches in advanced development and the competition is only beginning.”
The New Zealand company’s milestone has trumped a number of Australian startups that are looking to complete similar launches, but may also help to validate the sector and pave the way forward, Gilmour Space Technologies founder Adam Gilmour said.
“In the investor community there has been an apprehension about whether it is possible to make a small launch vehicle for less than a billion dollars,” Mr Gilmour told InnovationAus.com.
“They did it for well under that, and to a lot of people that’s validation. The market is definitely big enough to support even five different launch companies,” he said.
Gilmour Space Technologies appears to be the most likely to complete a similar launch in Australia first. It is in the process of launching a low-cost, small satellite launch vehicles capable of shooting satellites weighing up to 400kg into orbit.
It is aiming to carry much heavier satellites than Rocket Lab’s vehicle, but Mr Gilmour said the company’s progress has been slowed by overly stringent regulation and a lack of support from the federal government.
“Peter Beck started his company before I started mine, and he got almost immediate support from his government with a $20 million matched fund from the government investment arm,” he said.
“That was in a stage of technology development well behind where we are now. The only grant we’ve got from government is $45,000 from the Queensland government. We’ve had no federal support at all.
“We’re definitely behind the curve in terms of government support,” he said.
Gilmour Space Technologies, headquartered in Queensland, closed a $5 million Series A round early last year, led by Blackbird Ventures.
It is looking to launch different, bigger and heavier satellites into space than Rocket Lab, and is currently searching for a launch site in Australia.
“We’re working on a similar vehicle to what Rocket Lab put up, but with triple the payload capacity. When we analysed the market, we saw a lot of small satellites being made that are larger than what Rocket Lab can do,” Mr Gilmour said.
“We’ve been in talks with all the big satellite manufacturers and they’re very aggressively looking at the small satellite market in the 200-400kg range. Our vehicle is going to be able to take 400kg up to orbit.”
The Australian company is aiming to complete its first orbital test in late 2019 or early 2020, and is currently completing the main orbital engine of its vehicle. This is the “highest tech hurdle in the journey”, Mr Gilmour said.
The company will then embark on engine testing, a flight test, full thrust flight test and then a 90 per cent orbital test before reaching the stage Rocket Lab reached this week.
It is on track to be the first Australian company to do this.
“We’re not aware of anyone that’s even close to us in terms of technology development, funding or head count,” Mr Gilmour said.
Gilmour will be testing its rockets at a rural property in far north-west Queensland on a large cattle station, and is in the process of working on regulatory approvals from CASA, something which Mr Gilmour said is “really tricky”.
The Australian space industry is also looking to follow in New Zealand’s footsteps and establish its own private, commercial launchpad, with action underway in regional South Australia, northern Queensland and the Northern Territory.
The Northern Territory site is being pushed by Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), which is aiming to provide the “backbone to Australia’s burgeoning aerospace industry”.
In November last year ELA secured a 40 year sub-lease on a 60 hectare lot of land in north-east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
This land was leased to the Gumatji Aboriginal Corporation, a group which represents the traditional owners of the region, and then sub-leased to ELA, which is planning to build a commercial rocket launching facility there.
The company is currently working through the regulatory process before it begins construction of the launch pad, ELA spokesperson Shannon Brown said.
“Where we’re located in Arnhem Land ticked all the boxes: it’s equatorial, it has the right facilities for getting the technology into the area and it doesn’t have a big population nearby,” Mr Brown told InnovationAus.com.
“We’re excited about not only providing a facility that’s going to retain Australian know-how and smarts here in the country but to also bring in that technology from overseas.”
The establishment of the launch facility is expected to cost up to $5 million, with a contribution from the Northern Territory government. Mr Brown said it will service many of the same clients as the Rocket Lab site in New Zealand.
“In the 1960s the space race was very political, but these days any development is a good development. We’re able to offer something very different to what Rocket Lab are offering in New Zealand,” he said.
While Gilmour Space Technologies itself won’t be getting involved with building its own launch facility, it will potentially launch its rockets from the Northern Territory site, or any of the other proposed sites.
The growth of the local industry comes as the federal government recently announced that it will be moving to establish a national space agency. Few details of the agency have been revealed, with its structure to be guided by a current inquiry and an expert reference group.