Australia’s new space race

By on 24 July, 2018

A NASA launch of a Black Brant IX sub-orbital sounding rocket. Image provided by NASA Wallops.

This article was originally published in Position magazine no. 94.

In these strange days, the phrase ‘space race’ is likely to dredge a curious tapestry of associations.

Chillingly resonant Cold War paranoia, retro spacesuits, titanic rockets, celebrity astronauts and the crowning triumph of a human walking on the moon.

It should now conjure a slicker, even more incongruous cache of images — an electric sportscar in orbit, rockets landing themselves like a launch sequence in rewind, satellites that fit in the palm of your hand, and ubiquitous WiFi coverage.

Not following? These are all hallmarks of  ‘new space’ — the current, entrepreneur-led surge for the conquest of legacy territory previously held by ponderous interstellar giants such as NASA, and other bureaucratic space-focused state behemoths. New space is the newest game in town, and Australia isn’t being left behind.

Tesla founder Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX has hogged the limelight lately with their launch experiment theatrics — launching his own cherry-red roadster into space, and landing reusable rockets in elaborately choreographed controlled burns. With their increasingly ambitious Falcon launches, culminating in the spectacle of February’s Falcon Heavy launch, the firm is now poised to undercut legacy deep space contractors by a fairly colossal margin.

But SpaceX, a high-profile provider of launch services is merely the most-visible vanguard of an industry that has sprung up around a new set of paradigms. Reusable launch vehicles are but one — another is the headlong proliferation of tiny satellites that are redrawing requirements for launch infrastructure, vehicles and crucially — the capital required to reach orbit. Consider the relative effort needed to launch a satellite weighing a hundred kilograms — or ten — being managed and executed by a firm well-versed in raising venture capital, against a multi-ton behemoth requiring a towering rocket and years of preparation from interdependent government agencies.

The first pair of the 28 Planet Labs Earth Observation satellites leave the ISS, February 11 2014. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Small satellites refer to those under 500 kilograms in mass, and the boom in demand for these is helping to power the race for commercial space. Much as the revelation of reusable launch vehicles has changed the game for large-payload mission economics, the mushrooming proliferation of the nanosatellite class in particular, popularised by the CubeSat, has revolutionised access and potential for communications provision, imagery acquisition, research and defence. So many applications that previously relied on a handful of hulking giants in orbit can be serviced more efficiently, and vastly more economically, by greater numbers of these tiny devices.

Planet, founded by three former NASA engineers in 2010, is the poster-child for the power of nanosatellites, and now operates the largest fleet of private satellites on Earth, capturing and packaging daily imagery of the surface of the globe into accessible data products that can be accessed with open-source APIs.

None of this has been missed south of the equator. An entire ecosystem of businesses, engineers and space industry veterans has been busying themselves with entering this new space race — and Australia’s unique circumstances as a colossal, sparsely populated yet highly developed continent, so close to the equator presents some key advantages to those looking to reach orbit on a budget.

ELA’s Scott Wallis.

One such entity that has been working hard to leverage this unique conflagration of circumstances is Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA). ELA is soon to begin construction on the Arnhem Space Centre complex near Nhulunbuy in East Arnhem Land, NT, a facility which ELA intends to become Australia’s first commercial spaceport. Founder Scott Wallis, an aerospace professional who began in the sector in 1987 and worked on the US Air Force trials of GPS, is well-attuned to the change in industry dynamics.

“In old space, what we had was that it took many years to develop a large satellite and that satellite would last 10 to 15 in orbit, so they were already obsolete by the time they went up,” he told Position.

“So that’s the game-changer — you’re able to put your technology up there every three or four years and that’s what a lot of communications companies are looking to do.”

Wallis cites the ASX-listed Sky and Space Global as a pertinent, Australian exemplar. Sky and Space Global aim to launch 200 CubeSats into equatorial low earth orbit, providing commercial telecommunications services to an underserviced market — the equatorial band covers the majority of South America, Africa and nearly all of Southeast Asia.

“So within that band, there are three billion people living in what is either an unserviced market or underserviced, so there’s a significant opportunity for provision of satellite services to that region,” Wallis said.

“The other great benefit of that is that the satellites are not covering the whole globe, they’re only covering that band plus or minus 15 degrees. That means you only need one tenth the number of satellites — which is one tenth the cost — for the same level of coverage.”

Equatorial is the operative word here. The Arnhem Space Centre’s unique advantage for capturing this market by providing niche orbit services is just the first part of ELA’s strategy. Launch sites within 15 degrees of the equator harness a unique physical advantage for deep space missions too — being able to leverage the Earth’s mass.

“One of the primary advantages in the longer term is that we can launch directly to the moon twice a day whereas from places like Kennedy Space Center — they have to use a lot of fuel to launch, and then also do a second manoeuvre to be able to go to the moon — which significantly decreases the amount of payload that they can carry,” Wallis said.

Combined spectral image of asteroid Vesta from the Dawn mission, indicating particular minerals. Credit: NASA/JPL.

ELA is powering through their primary stage currently — beginning construction on their suborbital facilities this month, with a project plan that would ultimately see the complex fully able to service deep space missions. Much of the supporting infrastructure for operations of that scale is already in place — a deep sea port with roll-on, roll-off capability, a major regional airport capable of landing 737s, a fibre optic cable connection and the emergency amenities of a regional centre.

They currently hold a project facilitation agreement with the Norther Territory government and the Gumatj Corporation, representing the traditional owners of the site. They are the preferred provider for ELA in the construction of the facilities, and in another first, the project would provide a unique opportunity for training and employment for the Indigenous community upon whose land the site will be leased.

The Arnhem Space Centre will have the ability to launch sounding rockets once the suborbital facility nears completion in July 2018, and at that stage will have the ability to launch CubeSats, as Japanese space agency JAXA has recently demonstrated by lofting a TRICOM-1R CubeSat into LEO in February. NASA’s 2017 sounding rocket annual report cites the Arnhem Space Complex as the proposed launch site for NASA missions in 2019 and 2020. Wallis is quick to point out that the launch facilities they provide will be launch-vehicle agnostic — they are developing the ground infrastructure to support a range of mission types and vehicle configurations, not working on the launch technologies themselves.

There’s been a number of companies over the years that have put forward plans to do launch and not succeeded,” he said.

“That’s that’s a risky business whereas establishing a launch facility in an ideal location, using known and shown launch vehicles is a much lower risk.”

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At the other end of the industry from the physical considerations of launches and ground infrastructure, the ‘downstream’ components — a constellation of startups working on space-reliant technology has also been making rapid headway. South Australia’s government has successfully pushed to establish Adelaide as Australia’s hub for high tech manufacturing and R&D, and the SA Defence-led pressure on the federal government for establishing independent Australian space infrastructure culminated in the announcement of a national space agency in September 2017.

These initiatives seem to have provided the necessary incentives, serving as an accelerant to a flame that has been gaining intensity in the past few years, as a raft of next-generation communications companies and space startups now call the South Australian capital home.

One such example is Myriota, a startup founded in 2015 that recently received a state Future Jobs Fund grant, which will match their own $1.36 million investment to create what they refer to as an ‘Internet of Things (IoT) laboratory’ in Adelaide. Myriota have commercialised a suite of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications technologies that draw extremely low power and can communicate in extremely remote environments via low earth orbit satellites.

Myriota’s IP portfolio is based on technology developed at the University of Adelaide, and initially funded under the federal government’s Australian Space Research Program, which launched in 2010. While they were already planning to move forward with a consortium of partners to address a perceived market gap in the M2M space, their trajectory has been accelerated by state support for space industry expansion, and anticipates significant expansion of these services.

Myriota CEO, Dr. Alex Grant.

As Myriota CEO Dr. Alex Grant explained to Position, Myriota will be a customer for space-based services — and one that would be intrigued by the potential of equatorial LEO services. They are currently conducting trials with low inclination satellites, and are preparing to scale up for global service delivery in their IoT lab, as they work with OEM providers to find the broadest range of applications for their technology — aiming to give manufacturers of smart devices coverage in very remote areas.

We have four satellites we’re already using today on orbit that provide 100 percent geographic coverage — for us, the evolution of orbit is to reduce the revisit time. With four satellites we can provide something like two hourly revisits in terms of picking up data, but as we evolve that forward ultimately we’d really like to bring that time down,” he said.

“There’s a vast array of applications where even once-a-day communication solves a problem. But as pursue more applications, heading towards real time is something that’s very interesting and that requires more satellites not just from a geographical coverage point of view but from a temporal availability point of view.”

Dr. Grant is excited about what he sees as an ecosystem of interrelated and mutually supportive entities developing, and sees a direct link back to the initial support they received — a process that has parallels with the state support and investment occurring currently.

“I think it’s significant that technologies and companies have come directly out of a program that have then gone on to attract private investment, that now employ people — and it’s not just one or two, but really an ecosystem. There’s a whole generation of companies working in new space and of course not all of them directly relate to that but the fact that there was an emphasis and a focus there — I don’t think that’s coincidental,” he said.

“I think that’s a reflection of the size of the opportunity, there actually is an ecosystem of capable space companies. If there was just one, it might be isolated and an anomaly, but that’s not the case in Australia. There are multiple companies pursuing communications-related applications, multiple companies pursuing sensors, multiple companies doing avionics and componentry, there’s multiple companies pursuing launch — that’s a super healthy, that’s an industry.”

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