Contracts signed for first commercial rocket launch in NT

The first commercial rocket launch from Australia’s world-first commercial spaceport is slated for April 2025 under a deal signed this week between a South Australian company and a South Korean partner.

Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA) which has its headquarters in Adelaide’s Lot Fourteen space precinct, will host the launch of about a dozen Innospace satellite-carrying rockets from its Arnhem Space Centre (ASC) in the Northern Territory.

Innospace is the only manufacturer of a hybrid-fueled booster to have successfully launched a payload into space. The solid fuel component is inert, making it safer and cheaper to assemble and transport. A liquid oxidizer is added to a separate tank on the rocket when positioned on the launch pad. And only when the two are combined is the fuel’s explosive potential realised.

“These guys have a very simple rather than a really funky version of the technology,” says ELA  Executive Chairman and Group CEO Michael Jones. “They pay a lot of attention to the shape of the paraffin and how that is loaded into their solid fuel tanks. They use a simple oxidiser with locks rather than something exotic. And through the combiner pumps and the way that they’ve designed the engine output, their specific impulse appears to be way more than anybody else.

“It’s completely inert,” says Jones. “You can take a blowtorch to it, and it won’t burn. It’s not explosive. It’s nothing like TNT. But once it gets to the launch pad and the oxidiser is loaded, that’s when we’ll need all the same safety considerations as a liquid-fuelled rocket”.

Innospace aims to piggyback the centrifugal force advantage of the near-equator launch pad to help boost payloads of between 50kg and 500kg into orbit.

The rockets, including the solid fuel component, will be delivered by sea for transport to the facility, where they will be assembled and mated with their satellite payloads. 

Jones says Innospace hopes to launch about three rockets each year over the course of the four-year contract.

“I’d be really surprised, particularly in the last year of the contract, if we didn’t inject another three or four launches because, once they set up, the reloading is actually pretty quick. The availability of the payload then becomes the defining factor.”

ELA is the only space launch facility in the world to offer customers a permanent presence on-site. Elsewhere, rocket owners must fly-in and fly-out everything needed for the operation.

Innospace is the first to sign up as one of seven potential “resident launchers” at the Arnhem facility. Each can establish up their own headquarters and workshops , as well as access rocket assembly facilities. Each gets its own customised launch pad.

“There’s a lot more complexity to this pad than people think,” says Jones. “Every rocket is a different size, both in diameter, length and weight. And so our pad has to accommodate that. That means the plume trench has to cover all the various rocket configurations – be it five or nine main engines, whatever the cluster may be. And that includes all the different plume lengths and thrust densities.“

The South Korean company is first off the blocks as it is not subject to the strict technological transfer regulations applied by the United States.

Jones says delays to the signing of a Technological Safeguards Agreement (TSA) between Canberra and Washington is holding up several potential US customers.

“We’re still waiting with bated breath for the TSA, despite a bilateral announcement by Biden and Albanese in Japan in early June that the deal was done and dusted,” he explains. “We were all expecting it to be released by the end of the financial year and the process of being endorsed by Parliament begun”.

In the meantime, project planning work with Innospace is due to begin in November. The South Korean firm’s lease at the ASC begins in July next year, which is when work on preparing the facility is expected to begin.

“We hope to go through a dry dress rehearsal in the fourth quarter of ‘24, with a full rehearsal in March ‘25” says Jones. “The first launch is slated for April 15 at the moment. But it’s a complex game. That’s only a holding date at the moment”.

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