Space Launch Facility MOU
Space Launch Facility MOU
We are at the dawn of a new space age, driven by a transition from government to commercial launch and satellite operations, and buoyed by $17.4 billion of investment in space start-ups over the last decade1. Globally, commercial launch revenue is dominated by Europe (45%), Russia (25%) and the USA (19%), with the remainder shared amongst China, Japan, India, Iran, Israel and North Korea. There were no launch providers in the Southern Hemisphere until Rocket Lab launched the Electron rocket, with three orbital nanosatellites on New Zealand’s North Island on January 21st, 2018.
With the roll-out of a national space agency, and development of national and state strategies relating to aerospace and ongoing public and private sector planning in regard to aerospace services, development and facilities, Australia is now joining the new space age and will require launch facilities to take advantage of commercial space opportunities. Being late to the party it is likely that a series of small incremental steps would best be taken to build our space capability.
Whitsunday Regional Council, CQUniversity’s School of Engineering Technology, Australia Space Launch Pty Ltd and Gilmour Space Technologies Pty Ltd with support from RDAMIW and DSDMIP (MIW branch), have come together to assess the opportunities for the development of a commercial space launch facility in the Bowen/Collinsville area of MIW region.
Gilmour Space Technologies is the only commercial manufacturer of Australian designed and built rockets and have successfully launched a prototype sounding rocket in 2016, and in March 2018 their orbital-class rocket engine was successfully tested. Gilmour plans to provide low Earth orbit capability rockets by the end of 2020. Development of a commercial space launch facility will set the stage for Australia to join the new space age.
Where should the launch site be?
To maximise payload capacity, it is optimal to be close to the equator to take advantage of the Earth’s rotational velocity. A rocket on an equatorial launch pad is moving at 1670 km/h (a point on the equator travels 40,075 km in 24 hours), and less fuel will be required to escape Earth’s orbit compared to non-equatorial latitudes. This speed advantage drops with latitude north or south of the equator. For example, at 5° north of the equator the (French) Guiana Space Centre, used by the European commercial venture Arianespace, is moving at 1663 km/h, whereas the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, 46° north of the equator (primary launch facility for the Russian space agency RosCosmos), is moving at the considerably lower rate of 1160 km/h.
However, equatorial proximity is not the only factor. An eastern seaboard location is necessary to take advantage of the Earth’s eastward rotation and to avoid falling boosters or launch debris impacting populated areas. Other factors include a favourable climate, the need to secure sea lanes and air traffic around the site during launch operations, ease of access and proximity to industrial infrastructure.
The interested parties believe that the Bowen/Collinsville area in central/north Queensland is an excellent site for a commercial launch complex. Bowen is located 20° south of the equator, with a velocity of 1569 km/h, 7% higher than Kennedy Space Center in Florida (28.6° north) and almost 10% more than Woomera at 31° south. Bowen is on the east coast with a large eastward launch aperture suitable for equatorial or polar orbits (and everything in-between), with an unusually dry sub-tropical climate with rainfall (≥1mm) on only 56.7 days per year on average2 (for comparison, Cairns in the tropical north experiences more than twice the amount of rainy days). Bowen is close to the regional city of Mackay (population 115,000) with considerable industrial infrastructure supporting mining and agriculture. Road, rail and air transportation link the region to the state capital, Brisbane, 972 km to the south. Local air traffic is relatively light; Mackay airport averages 10,700 aircraft movements per year3, significantly less than Townsville (25,688), Cairns (48,828) and Brisbane (191,169), thus launch operations will have less impact on commercial and private flight operations.
The development of a commercial space launch facility in the Bowen/Collinsville area will generate significant direct and indirect economic growth as well as considerable prestige. The parties envisage additional opportunities which could include a commercial space research hub at CQUniversity’s Mackay campus, to support satellite development and payload integration and to provide research opportunities in all aspects of space, from engineering and technology to business and law.
In addition, this program could harness the power of spaceflight in sparking the imagination of the region’s youth to support educational initiatives promoting participation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines at the primary and secondary school levels and to encourage school leavers to consider a STEM career. A launch complex would directly support hundreds of operational jobs related to launch operations as well as indirectly create up to a thousand positions in local, regional and state industries such as construction, transportation, materials and commodities, education, IT services, hospitality and tourism.
If assessment consideration is positive, the plan is for an incremental approach to commercial space activities, starting with a basic launch complex suitable for orbital satellite operations.