Hopes high for Christmas blast off despite launch pad failure

The Whaler’s Way Orbital Launch Complex in South Australia has had to scrub one of two launches scheduled before a December 20 cutoff date.

On Thursday, an ATSpace Kestrel I rocket was rolled onto the remote launch pad near Port Lincoln. This mission, dubbed VS02, had to be aborted after an oxidiser leak was detected during the fuelling process. 

An investigation determined repairs could not be completed on the pad, and the rocket was withdrawn for assessment.

The 10-metre-tall Kestrel I rocket had previously been damaged while waiting for launch in November during an intense electrical storm. It was returned to the ATSpace manufacturing facility in Wingfield, Adelaide, for repairs. It’s not yet known if it will have to make the journey again.

But a second Kestrel I rocket, this time designated VS03, is anxiously waiting for a weekend launch.

Both the launch facility staff and the rocket’s Adelaide-based manufacturer hope a little Christmas spirit will give the mission a lift.

“Team morale is still incredibly high,” Southern Launch spokeswoman Amy Featherston told Cosmos. “We all understand that launching to space is difficult. But what we’re doing here is forging new ground for the Australian space industry. So we’re all incredibly excited to be a part of it.”

The VS03 rocket will carry an Inovor Technologies space module fitted with payloads from Asension (formerly DEWC Systems) and Southern Launch. Asension will test an electronic warfare system for the Australian Defence Force, while Southern Launch will record and analyse launch data. 

“Launching to space is a challenging task,” ATSpace CEO Dr Yen-Sun Chen said.

And he has the experience to prove it.

Space is difficult

The first Whaler’s Way test launch failed on its third attempt in September 2021 after the Taiwanese Hapith (Flying Squirrel) rocket caught fire. The manufacturer, TiSPACE, has since gone on to open an Australian branch – ATSpace – in Adelaide.

“The VS03 mission is another chance for us to test our systems to achieve technical maturity,” Dr Yen-Sun said.

“We’d love to launch three rockets by Christmas,” added Ms Featherston. But we’re never going to proceed with a launch unless we’re 100 per cent sure we’ve done everything we can to make certain it’s safe”.

The fact the Kestrel I rockets have been in position and under countdown is an achievement in itself, she says. “For us, it means we’ve set up a launch range that is world-class, and customers can use. It’s just that our customers’ rockets have to behave as expected. As we all know, that can be a bit difficult.”

The VS03 two-stage Kestrel I rocket is currently undergoing final pre-flight checks.

It’s aiming for a launch window between 8am and 6.30pm Sunday, December 18. An air and sea exclusion zone has been declared for the area between those times.

“We’re looking at daily updates from the BoM. We’re sending out weather balloons to understand the upper-atmosphere winds,” Ms Featherston says. “Then, as a team, we’ll sit down and analyse that data to determine if conditions are suitable”.

SA manufacturers building high-tech solutions for space missions.

The ATSpace suborbital rocket can boost a payload some 200km into the sky. It then travels above the atmosphere for about 10 minutes before falling back to Earth. A larger version – The Kestrel V – is being developed to place satellites in orbit.

The Whaler’s Way launch complex at the tip of the Eyre Peninsula hopes to offer regular launches into specialist polar and sun-synchronous orbits. Both travel north-south. But a sun-synchronous orbit passes over both poles at timed intervals to keep the sun at the same relative point in the sky. This allows photographs and sensors to capture data under the same sunlight conditions on every pass.

The project is still subject to final development approvals. But permission has been granted for the three demonstration flights.

“We’re still waiting on final approval from state and federal governments to make it a permanent launch facility,” Ms Featherston says. “If it does get approval, then we would invest in more permanent infrastructure to support our customers in diagnosing and repairing rocket components.”

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