25 Sep 2020
Blast off from Bowen
Established in 2018, the Australian Space Agency isn’t about making rockets. Its role is to stimulate the growth of the Australian commercial space sector, shape space policy, and engage with international partners, as well as promoting space to further STEM education. Fostering inspiration and achieving visible progress is of key importance, and a bright future seems set for the Australian space community.
Last week South Australian aerospace company Southern Launch created history when it fired off two suborbital rockets, carrying an experimental payload to the edge of space. The company is now moving towards future launches into polar orbit from its future Whaler’s Way site, near Port Lincoln.
Another company, Equatorial Launch Australia, is establishing a space port at Nhulunbuy, near Gove in the Northern Territory, that would be ideal for missions into the important “equatorial low earth orbit” location above Earth.
Queensland’s space sector is certainly not standing still.
Gold Coast-based Gilmour Space Technologies, one of Australia’s leading rocket development companies, has signed a contract to launch the first Australian satellite in 2022. Its Eris orbital rocket is designed to put small satellites into low earth orbit.
The launch will mark a significant historical milestone, as the first time an Australian payload has been launched on an Australian rocket from Australia.
Black Sky Aerospace in Jimboola is developing a range of launch vehicle technologies for both orbital and suborbital missions. Also, Hypersonix in Brisbane is researching technologies that could see the development of reusable hypersonic space planes.
Now there are moves towards establishing Australia’s third space launch site at Abbott Point, near Bowen, Queensland. If this goes ahead, the state will be well placed to launch to orbit in a big way, and further elevate its position in Australia’s space firmament.
The proposed site at Bowen would launch rockets east across the Coral Sea, on their way into low earth orbit. It would take advantage of extensive infrastructure already in place in the region and enjoy proximity to Gilmour Space Technologies. That’s always a huge advantage, especially if a goal is responsive space launch at short notice, perhaps to support the operational needs of the Australian Defence Forces in space.
The 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan elevates the importance of the space domain, emphasises a requirement for sovereign space capability, and promotes the significance of maintaining effective space control.
In facing a contested space domain, characterised by adversary development of anti-satellite capabilities, having resilient space capability backed up by a rapid sovereign space launch will become increasingly vital for Australia. The Bowen space port could thus emerge as a key location to support Defence’s space requirements in coming years.
Bowen’s location on the eastern seaboard, together with the proposed launch site’s proximity to the equator (20º south of the equator), means it is well positioned to take advantage of Earth’s rotational velocity for reduced cost to orbit. Equatorial proximity is significant in terms of maximising payload capacity while minimising use of fuel, thus generating maximum financial return from launches. Only the site at Nhulunbuy in the NT is closer, at 12º south of the equator.
Bowen is well positioned to support both equatorial and polar orbit missions and has a dry subtropical climate. It’s close to Mackay and enjoys extensive telecommunications, road, rail and air transportation links to Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
Thus, the potential would exist not only to establish the immediate infra-structure to support space launches at Bowen but tap into an emerging network of space companies further south.
The development of a launch site at Abbot Point would also generate the potential for a “commercial space research hub” within Central Queensland University that could support satellite development, payload integration and allow further space science research opportunities.
That in turn would strengthen economic prosperity, boosting jobs, and growing secondary and tertiary sectors to support a “space coast” emerging in the region.
There’s also the potential growth of STEM opportunities for the next generation of space engineers and researchers emerging in Queensland’s secondary and higher education sector.
With three possible launch sites and the rapid growth of sovereign launch providers, Australia is well placed to pursue a true end-to-end commercial space sector. This would see a flourishing ground segment of facilities and services to use space capabilities for economic growth. It would also see Australia moving beyond its traditional emphasis on a ground segment and move towards supporting the establishment of a sovereign space segment, including local development of satellites and the establishment to sovereign space launch from Australian launch sites.
Achieving such an outcome is the mark of a mature and forward-looking national space sector that is well placed to become a participant in a rapidly growing international space sector that could be worth $1.1 trillion by 2040.
Australia must move on from the past, when it was only a passive recipient of space services provided by others, to the future where it will become an active provider of space capabilities, both for national civil and commercial purposes, and for Australia’s defence and national security needs.
Australia’s ability to “export space” to international partners, in a manner that is consistent with our national interests and values, also is a key opportunity.
After all, there’s no reason why rockets from Australia’s allies and partners couldn’t launch from Bowen, Nhulunbuy or Whaler’s Way too.