World’s biggest rocket companies get green light to launch from Australia

The last big hurdle preventing US commercial rockets launching satellites from Australian spaceports has been removed.

“This announcement overnight by President Biden and Prime Minister Albanese means that ELA can now move ahead with multiple contract negotiations currently underway with several US launchers, and we are thrilled that the two governments have announced this progress,” Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA) CEO Michael Jones told Cosmos.

The White House issued a statement saying the new Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA) will provide a legal and technical framework enabling the movement of sensitive equipment between the 2 allies.

This agreement “protects sensitive US launch technology and data in Australia consistent with our shared nonproliferation goals; and creates the potential for new space-related commercial opportunities,” the White House statement reads. “The United States and Australia continue to advance negotiations on a space cooperation framework agreement to enable broader bilateral cooperation.”

Prime Minister Albanese has announced several new joint initiatives as part of an effort to speed up the implementation of the AUKUS agreement announced by the former Morrison government in September 2021.

While the supply and construction of nuclear submarines was central to that agreement, it was also intended to enable collaboration on artificial intelligence, hypersonic and quantum technologies. 

Space launch activities were included in the discussions given the strict US restrictions on the industry. This had been holding back the development of an Australian industry by the likes of Gilmour Space, Southern Launch and ELA.

“ELA can now advance the contract negotiations for US companies launching from the Arnhem Space Centre,” says Jones. “The TSA with the US will be the most comprehensive and detailed TSA of its kind for any nation, and there has been a lot of effort by key Australian space industry parties and government entities behind the scenes to ensure we get it right.”

Lloyd Damp, head of Southern Launch, says the TSA is a game-changer. “The US space industry has been leading the space race for generations and this agreement will allow us to work closely with US space companies to facilitate launches or returns from our Australian sites.

“Our partnership with Varda Space Industries will see their in-space manufacturing capsules return to our Koonibba Test Range. The TSA makes this process easier and opens the door for us to relaunch these capsules into orbit from our Whalers Way Orbital Launch Facility on a rocket manufactured by a US company,” Lloyd says. “This creates a circular process that will benefit the wider local space industry and put the skills and capabilities of Australian space companies to the forefront of the global space market. Not to mention the incredible benefits that in-space manufacturing can provide to everyone in society – the TSA paves the way for a new era of space potential.“

“This agreement will accelerate the development of the Australian space industry and we are excited about the opportunities this will bring to our nation. We have known for many years that our launch sites and expertise could benefit the US, now it’s time for us to step into the spotlight and showcase our capabilities to the world.”

Launching close to the equator from the Northern Territory spaceport means less fuel is needed for rockets to reach orbit, which in turn allows heavier payloads to be carried.

ELA currently has 3 operational launch pads, with plans to activate another 14.

The signing of the TSA means several Memorandums of Understandings already reached with US rocket companies can now be turned into “real contracts”.

“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,” he told Cosmos in an interview in May.

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