Australian launch industry looks to government for regulatory and financial support

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WASHINGTON — Australia’s nascent launch industry says it would like to see the country’s government provide more financial and regulatory support to help it get established in the global market.

In a panel discussion during the Ninth Australian Space Forum in Adelaide Feb. 18, leaders of launch vehicle companies and spaceport operators in the country emphasized the benefits of their industry in creating jobs and overall economic development, and that Australia was well-positioned to capture a share of the growing demand for satellite launches.

“Australia is actually an excellent place for launch but also for investment more broadly, and launch in itself is a critical enabler of future growth economically in Australia,” said Carley Scott, chief executive of Equatorial Launch Australia, which is setting up a launch site in the Northern Territory.

Other panelists emphasized Australia’s capabilities both in terms of available land to support launches but also its economic and political situation. “You need a geopolitically stable country and a large land mass,” said Blake Nikolic, chief executive of Black Sky Aerospace, which provides launch vehicle, propulsion and related services. Australia is one of the few countries in the Southern Hemisphere that can offer both, he argued.

To be successful, though, companies said they were looking for government support that parallels what is available in other countries. Adam Gilmour, chief executive of small launch vehicle developer Gilmour Space Technologies, said that while most of the customers for his company’s vehicle are from outside Australia, his company can’t compete for contracts from government agencies in some countries, like the United States, where they have to buy domestically.

He called for a similar policy in Australia. “We can’t compete for U.S. government launches because, in America, they have to use an American launcher to launch a U.S. government payload,” he said. “We don’t have that here, so that would really help.”

Gilmour also advocated for the Australian government to support development of launch infrastructure like spaceports, citing examples like the United States where both federal and state governments have invested in launch sites.

Australia does have regulations for licensing commercial launches, but how they’re applied can be an issue. Scott said she’s run into issues involving environmental regulations for her launch site. “We needed to apply ourselves and our practice and align it to what the mining industry does,” she said. “Not only is that a very heavy process, it also isn’t fit for purpose.”

She and other panelists also said that launch licenses should allow vehicles to switch launch sites, or make minor modifications, without having to file for a new application. That has been an issue in the United States, where ongoing regulatory reform proposes to allow a single launch vehicle license be applicable from multiple launch sites. “That will save a lot of time and a lot headcount,” said Gilmour.

The speed of the regulatory process is another issue for launch operators, said Lloyd Damp, chief executive of Southern Launch, a company establishing a launch site in South Australia with South Korean small launch vehicle developer Perigee Aerospace as one customer. “It’s not really for us so much the content of the approval process,” he said, “it’s about the timeliness so that Australia as a whole can do safe launch from our lands as well as reap the financial benefits that we as all Australians would like to see.”

The panel suggested one approach for building up Australia’s launch and overall space industry is through some kind of “national pathfinder mission” that demonstrates the country’s space capabilities. One option they discussed was a smallsat lunar orbiter mission.

“Ambitious projects are what inspire us,” said Nikolic. “Finding a mission within a short period of time, a couple of years, could be a fantastic program to run that could see many of the existing companies and future startups getting involved. It’s almost like our own mini moon-to-Mars Artemis program.”

Damp said that national pride, and competitiveness, could help fuel the industry. He compared Australia, which last hosted an orbital satellite launch in 1971, with neighboring New Zealand, which has seen 11 launches of Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket since 2017.

“We in Australia have launched two satellites to date,” he said. “New Zealand has launched 42 satellites over the last couple of years. It’s time for us to jump on board.”