Investor backing to the tune of $19 million and a change in laws to enable domestic launches has put Queensland’s Gilmour Space Technologies on track for a commercial launch by 2020.
Australia’s fledgling space industry has come a long way in recent months. In July, the Australian Space Agency started operations, and in August the government amended the Space Activities Act to allow ground launches of high-powered rockets within Australia, as well as launches from aircraft in flight.
Gilmour Space has developed a powerful hybrid-fuelled rocket engine they plan to use to launch small satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO).
Founder and CEO Adam Gilmour said his company provided lot of feedback on the review of the Space Activities Act, and were very happy with the amendment.
“It’s incredible to think that Australian companies will now be able to build and commercially launch Australian-made satellites and launch vehicles into space from Australia,” he told create.
The company is currently gearing up for the upcoming flight-test of their main orbital engine, which is scheduled for late in the last quarter of this year. When this has been achieved, their focus will shift to developing the guidance, navigation and control systems for their rockets, Gilmour said.
“We’re also building the team we need to help us achieve our launch goals,” he added.
In 2020, Gilmour Space plans to launch Eris-100, a three-stage commercial vehicle capable of carrying 100 kg to LEO. Eris-400, a clustered-engine vehicle for payloads of up to 400 kg, is scheduled to follow in 2021.
Credibility among investors
Gilmour said the bulk of the $19 million in funding they raised to scale up their operations for a commercial launch came from Australia. However, they also had investors from the UK, Europe, US and Asia.
Martin Duursma from lead-investor Main Sequence Ventures, which is based in Sydney, said Gilmour Space was expanding Australia’s space capability from so-called ‘downstream’ applications (which focus on using space data) to having the ability to launch satellites for both commercial and national benefit. Main Sequence Ventures manages the CSIRO innovation fund.
Gilmour explained the Asian space industry is limited outside Japan, China and India at the moment, and the visibility of his company’s progress and successful tech demonstrations have helped to build its credibility among local investors.
“Australia’s recent push for space has also helped, plus the fact that we’re focused on the ‘new space’ segment of the global space industry, which is where the next wave of growth and innovations are expected to come from,” he added.
Gilmour Space gained extra kudos as the first Australian startup to sign a Space Act agreement with NASA to collaborate on projects, including a Mars rover. Gilmour said the company is speaking with UNSW and Monash University to fine-tune the design of its rover, which they will then test at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Leading the pack
With thousands of small satellites likely to be launched to LEO in the next five years, the number of operators in the small-launch marketplace is growing. However, New Zealand’s Rocket Lab boasts the only commercial payload to date. Gilmour believes his company is among the few close to following suit.
“There are perhaps six to eight companies globally that have the needed funding, team size and demonstrated verified technology to be considered well on their way to developing an orbital launch vehicle. We believe we’re one of them,” Gilmour said.
As well as limited launch options, Gilmour explained that small satellite customers will also face the challenge of steep costs.
“We believe that launch costs will need to fall below US$30,000/kg (AU$42,210/kg) in order for many small satellite operators to conduct their activities profitably, and our prices will reflect that,” Gilmour said.
Several other Australian space startups are making their mark, with Adelaide-based Fleet Space Technologies named by global satellite communications company Iridium as a new partner to deliver connectivity for the Internet of Things. And Sydney-based Flurosat, which is working to improve food security with satellite and drone data, has been listed in Crunchbase’s top ten AI startups in Australia and New Zealand.
In this year’s Federal budget, the government committed $41 million over the next four years to establish the Australian Space Agency, which includes $15 million to help local industry get involved in international projects.
Gilmour said that while the growing momentum of the Australian space industry is great to see, he believes the government’s goal of tripling the size of the local industry to $12 billion by 2030 will require more significant investment.
“I really hope to see that happen soon,” he said.