Rocket science is hard. Building a rocket is harder. Which is why subjecting yourself to the success or failure of both sounds like a dozen sorts of crazy rolled into one.
But Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA) CEO Michael Jones says that there is a real opportunity beyond the smoke and debris.
“In July last year, we were all dressed up and ready to go,” he tells Cosmos. “We were the first commercial spaceport ever to conduct not just one launch, but three.”
But the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune so often associated with rocket technology have intervened.
“We had two launches slated for November, December last year, and then again in February, March this year, and each of those two different companies have had technical setbacks,” Jones says.
Mechanical anomalies. Unexpected disassemblies. Unscheduled ablations.
“I don’t like to use the word failures when it relates to potential customers, but that’s caused a whole lot of schedules to slide to the right,” Jones adds. “It’s a challenge for us. It’s a challenge for them. It’s a hard industry where near enough is never good enough”.
But international interest in the Northern Territory launch facility continues to grow, with Jones saying the “more than half-dozen” memorandums of understanding already signed with potential multi-launch customers are beginning to turn into signed contracts.
Equatorial Launch Australia’s advantage: Coriolis force
It’s a rapidly evolving industry. Full of potential. And perhaps too much excitement.
“We’ll make statements when we achieve something,” Jones says. “There are too many people in our industry who are potentially – longer-term – doing some damage by making outlandish statements that are unsupportable by fact. And we don’t want to be part of that”.
There’s also an inevitable winnowing process ahead.
“We track 73 companies globally who say they’re a rocket company. We think 25 of those are real,” Jones says.
That’s based on assessments of their maturity, technology, business plan and funding.
“We think 15 of those will launch, and between 10 and 12 will survive,” he adds.
But Jones says ELA realises the point of the industry isn’t about rockets. It is about successfully putting a payload into orbit.
“When I started in this position, the first thing I did was visit our potential customers. They asked how our discussions were going with the manufacturers of satellites and space vehicles. I said, ‘We didn’t want to eat your lunch – that’s your job’.
“But they went ‘no, no, no, no… you have to create this pull-through effect because nobody knows you’re around’.”
And that pull-through effect for ELA is the Coriolis force.
The velocity of the Earth’s rotation generates a stronger “slingshot” effect the closer you get to the equator.
That means rockets don’t need to burn so much fuel to get into orbit.
And that, in turn, means more weight can be dedicated to payloads.
Which is what satellite operators want to hear.
“Nobody knew the benefits of Equatorial Launch unless they looked at the fine detail because of the established knowledge that, unless your name is Airbus or Ariane, you can’t launch out of Kourou, French Guiana… They thought accessing the rotational velocity of the Earth didn’t apply to them”, says Jones. “So that was a real eye-opener for us.”
Add easily accessed logistics, supporting infrastructure and a keen local community to the mix, and Jones says ELA has now achieved the “cut through” it needed.
“There are quite a few companies now who want to progress to the next stage of contracts,” he explains. “By September, October, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that we will be booked out for the next couple of years.”
It takes about 15 months to get a rocket launched from the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Space Centre.
The launch pad has to be prepared. The regulatory work has to be signed and sealed before the launch is certified under the Australian Space Act. The rocket has to be packed, shipped, delivered, re-assembled and prepared. Then it gets mated with its satellite payload, rolled out to the launch site.
ELA must facilitate every step of this process.
“If we’re doing seven launches in a month, they’ll likely be from seven different companies,” says Jones. “So, we’ll reconfigure launch control, range control, and the telemetry systems for each of them. We’ll refurbish the pads, load the pads, and provide the fuelling needs.”
It’s not as simple as offering up a paved tennis court in the middle of the desert, he adds.
“A few years ago, people were talking about putting a ‘rocket in a box’ so they could turn up and launch from anywhere. The reality is, rockets are delicate. They don’t like to be moved. And they need a whole lot of supporting systems”.
Inadequate infrastructure means debris, uncontrolled jets of flame – and significantly reduced margins of error.
“There’s a reason why NASA, who have been doing this for 75 years, have pad design criteria concerning flume trenches and angles of deflectors, water deluge systems, and nitrogen purging systems,” Jones says.
But commercial rocket operators seeking to use even established US Federal government facilities must still do extra work to get off the ground.
They are given a launch window. They are given access to the launch pad. And little else.
“What do I do for water? What do I do for power? What do I do for internet connectivity? What I do for fuel? ‘How I do what I have to do’ is something that must be managed each and every time.”
The ELA launch facility, therefore, provides three different types of power supply, fibre-optic broadband, assembly infrastructure and fire safety systems. Then there’s the menu of multiple types of rocket fuels, and neutral fuel-pressure buffer gasses…the list goes on.
“So our pads are quite complex, as is the interface design for each rocket onto the pad,” he adds.
It’s Outback Australia. So there’s inevitably red dust.
“Yes, it’s as hard as concrete. Yes, it can stain everything. But that just means we take a little extra effort to keep clean with things like sticky foot pads at the doors,” Jones explains.
The greater problem is the biases that red dust invokes.
“The commercialisation of space is new,” says Jones. “There aren’t many people with grey hair like me at the conventions I go to. They’re incredibly bright. They don’t see any challenges. But they look at the pictures, see the red dirt, and think of Australia as a third-world country that is just such a long way away.
“We spend a ridiculous amount of time just to dispel those prejudices and convince them that launching from Australia really isn’t all that hard.”
ELA has completed Phase One of its infrastructure plan. Three launch pads are currently operational. Phase two will provide another 14, allowing the first three to be reallocated for assembly and integration testing.
“We have all the surveys done. We’ve started to carve out some additional roads. And we have Jacobs from the US, the main contractor for Kennedy Space Center and NASA, consulting on and reviewing our construction, maintenance and operations.”
Some regulatory hurdles still need to be removed.
“We need the Technology Safeguards Agreement treaty between Australia and the United States ratified and put in place early in the first quarter of the new financial year,” Jones says. “That would allow us to turn the Memorandum of Understanding of the draft contracts into real contracts.”
There’s the project review. There’s closing out the capital raising. There’s the civil engineering work on the new launch pads.
“There is no rest for the wicked,” Jones says. “We’re working very hard to get ahead so that when the inevitable wall of launches hits us, we’re ready and can absorb it.”