AT Spac's VS03 rocket at Southern Launch's Whalers Way launch site. The rocket launch was scrubbed last year, but AT Space has plans to try again with another rocket later this year. Credit: Southern Launch
t’s supposed to be a demonstration of Australia’s sovereign ability to build its own missiles, but a new rocket taking shape in a suburban Adelaide workshop is changing its target towards a more profitable outcome.
Southern Launch is in the final stages of assembling two as-yet-unnamed prototypes for Thales Australia as part of a project initiated under the previous Federal Government’s Advanced Rocket Motor Technology Demonstrator (ARMTD) Program.
The Adelaide-based startup teamed with the global French multinational defence aerospace conglomerate and the Federal Government’s Defence, Science and Technology Group (DST) to produce an Australian-made, “military relevant” hypersonic rocket.
The motor is being built by Australia’s sovereign munition manufacturing facility at Mulwala in regional New South Wales.
Southern Launch is designing, building and testing the two rocket frames at its Hindmarsh facility. It’s also responsible for modelling flight dynamics and designing avionics systems.
“This is some interesting stuff,” Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Damp told Cosmos Weekly on a recent tour of the Southern Launch workshop at Hindmarsh. “We’ve had to design and develop ourselves ways to manufacture these vehicles, because you can’t just go out there, get a bit of poly pipe and turn it into a rocket.”
“You can’t just go out there, get a bit of poly pipe and turn it into a rocket.”Lloyd Damp
And the bent-controlled surfaces and frayed composites sitting on various shelves point to the need to test every component to its breaking point. That – and the experience gained from preparing its South Australian launch sites over the past couple of years – has emphasised the need for just such a commercial service, he adds.
“We’ve subsequently recognised there’s a much greater demand for this type of rocket than we expected,” Damp says. “What we’re doing now is developing a variant for the research and development market.”
What goes up…
Anything that flies to space must be certified to do so.
Flight qualifications are necessary for every component. And that can only be earned by putting those components through representative environments.
Can it survive sustained high-G acceleration? Can it cope with rapidly changing air pressure? What about extremes of temperature? Then there are all the jumps, bumps and shakes involved in the process.
That’s the job for a sounding rocket – a suborbital research vehicle.
“This vehicle will carry payloads to test different materials and bits of electronics,” says Damp. “They won’t put a satellite into orbit. But it will be a very cost-effective testbed vehicle.”
Currently, Australian space startups must run a long and expensive regulatory hurdle race to send their prototypes overseas to achieve space flight qualification.
“Over the next couple of months, we’ll be redesigning this to be more in tune with where we believe our market to be and hopefully launching them before the end of this year from the Koonibba Test Range,” says Damp.
Koonibba is about 600 kilometres west of Adelaide on the edge of the sparse Nullabor Plain.
“I really would love to get one of these up sub-obliquely – go up above 100 km and then come back down again. No Australian-designed and manufactured vehicle has done that yet.”
Damp says the Koonibba Test Range is also proving appealing to international launch companies.
It’s a long way from heavy land, sea or air traffic but is near the regional centre of Ceduna and of course has associated road, rail and airport logistics.
And there are no international borders nearby to be accidentally violated.
Downrange from the launchpad is the 145km arc of the uninhabited Yellabinna Regional Reserve, providing a safety zone covering some 10,000 square kilometres.
“At Koonibba you launch up – you don’t use the rockets to put satellites into orbit,” Damp explains. “Instead, they go up – sometimes into space, usually not – and then fall back into the desert. So if you want to test different new materials for the leading edge of rocket fins, for example, you can return it to the desert, go pick it up, and see what’s happened to it”.
Southern Launch sounding out the market
Last month, UK-based Space Forge signed an agreement to explore the potential of using South Australia as a launch-and-return site for its ForgeStar1A spacecraft. It wants to put the small industrial spacecraft into low orbit to exploit the lack of atmosphere and gravity to produce small quantities of ultra-pure alloys, pharmaceuticals and electronics for advanced research purposes.
Such projects would produce a flow-on effect for Australia’s space industry, says Damp. “For example, Space Forge wants to refurbish and relaunch their satellites as close as possible to their re-entry point,” he explains.
Wingfield-based AT Space is dissecting the lessons learnt from their failed launch attempts at Whalers Way, near Port Lincoln, last year. They hope to have their Kestrel rocket ready for another shot later this year.
Germany’s DLR Aerospace Center has signed up to start launching its reusable ReFEx launch vehicle from the facility next year. And Japanese space agency, JAXA, chiefs toured the site last month as they contemplate a future Mars sample return project similar to its successful Hayabusa missions.
“It’s probably a testament to where the commercial space industry is at in Australia – and even globally – that so many people are still at the testing phase of so much new technology,” says Southern Launch communications manager Amy Featherston. “They want to know, ‘What can we try? How can we go try it?’ That’s why what we have at Koonibba is so unique. It’s a vast amount of space that not many people in the world have, and that’s why we’re getting so much interest.”
Backing a horse called rocket science
Damp believes there’s plenty of room for Australian launch providers in the rapidly expanding commercial space industry.
“One of the key markets we’re looking to support is replenishment – sustaining those big constellations of low-orbit satellites,” he explains.
Some jobs need a truck, like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. Some need a ute, like the Rocket Lab Electron. “But if you really needed to get to a meeting today, you didn’t catch a bus. You drove yourself. Or caught an Uber. That’s the market we’re going for.”
And that’s because satellites are becoming a commodity item.
“Companies are starting to build them with defined lifespans because they know technology and roles change so fast,” says Damp. “So you don’t send them far from Earth. And, after four or so years in the upper rarefied atmosphere, the drag will naturally de-orbit them and burn them up.”
And that’s when they’ll be replaced by newer models.
“It’s data as a service,” he adds. “Governments and corporations won’t own the satellites. They won’t dictate how to make the satellite. They’ll just say this is the outcome they want – and ask industry to supply proposals”.
“Companies are starting to build satellites with defined lifespans because they know technology and roles change so fast.”Lloyd Damp
Meanwhile, the commercial rocket industry is experiencing some teething pains on its path to becoming a mature service.
“We’re dealing with advanced technology. It can be difficult. But it’s also incredibly rewarding,” says Damp. “I’ve got young kids, and my kids want to be astronauts!
“Ok – nature versus nurture – I’ve given them rockets to play with. But even at the schools we’ve been engaged with, the young generation wants to do space. Space is cool, and it gravitates them towards STEM outcomes. And so to be at the very forefront of leading the nation towards that ultimate goal. I don’t think I’d give it up.”