09 May Launch & access to space
Reliable access to space is critical to the growth of the Australian space sector –
without sustainable and cost-effective avenues to launch Australian satellites the Australian space industry will be constrained. Australia needs to ensure that its companies and Government agencies have reliable and timely access to launch capability serving all orbits and launch inclinations to maximise the growth of the Australian space sector and to ensure the ability to maintain critical space-based services.
Historically across the globe launch vehicle manufacture and launch operations were a state controlled or state-funded activity with commercial payloads seeking opportunities from operators primarily serving the government market. Commercial services for non-state satellite operators were constrained by the capability (launch mass and orbital characteristics) and cost effectiveness of launch vehicles designed for government missions and their ability to get on the launch manifest. This is changing with the emergence of privately-owned commercial operators such as SpaceX, RocketLab and Blue Origin developing launch services to serve the commercial market. In spite of this trend towards commercial launch activities (even NASA now uses commercial services for human spaceflight) governments remain the largest purchaser of launch services by number of launches even though commercial satellites now outnumber government satellites due to the proliferation of large commercial satellite constellations (SpaceX has launched 829 operational Starlink satellites between May 2019 and October 2020).
The growth of the commercial launch market has expanded the range of launch operators and new innovations (such as first stage reusability) have reduced the cost to orbit. However, launch remains a potential bottleneck for the Australian satellite industry particularly at the small satellite end of the market (smallsats, cubesats) comprising most current Australian satellite activities.
The improvements achieved by the launch industry do not necessarily scale directly to the small satellite market. Launch is typically the second largest cost in a large satellite program (after the cost of the satellite) but a dedicated launch can exceed the satellite build costs for a small satellite. Cheaper ride-share (shared launches) opportunities are available for small satellites but limit the orbit and the launch timeline to that of the primary payload. Satisfying the Australian regulatory requirements can also be a major issue for ride-share satellites which have little say in the key decisions regarding the launch.
In spite of the growing commercial launch industry the dual-use nature of rocket technology (ability to also be used as weapons) and the importance of space from a national security perspective continues to impact launch availability. In recent years China has emerged as the world leader in number of launches conducted per year yet Australian satellite operators are largely denied access to these launch vehicles due to a US ban on US parts and systems being launched from China. The recent tensions between Russia and Ukraine have effectively removed the highly effective Sea Launch program and Zenit-3 launch vehicle from the market.
The launch market is susceptible to geopolitical forces which can lead to being bumped from a launch manifest to accommodate a military launch to denial of access to certain parts of the launch market. Australia needs to determine whether the current level of reliance on international organisations for launch meets our future needs including our sovereign needs for access to space.
OPPORTUNITY FOR GROWTH
The launch market is dynamic with continual efforts to improve access to space with more reliable and cost-effective launch capability. A key target is the small satellite market where a race to develop cost effective access to space is underway including by Australian companies.
Geography is a key factor for launch sites with proximity to the equator and ability to safely launch over open water or unpopulated areas to all launch azimuths from 0 to 98 degrees while minimising overflight of neighbouring countries. Australia is among the few nations that has this capability and is a good location for launch and testing of new vehicles. Australian companies are currently developing launch sites to capitalise on these advantages.
Another emerging opportunity is space tourism and point-to-point travel. Australia is well positioned to become the space tourism hub for Asia and be involved in the development of sub-orbital point-to-point travel, first for fast package delivery and subsequently for human travel around the globe in less than 90 minutes. SpaceX is well advanced with this concept with Australia considered a key initial location and the US military is now evaluating this as means of rapid supply and potentially troop movements globally. No country will benefit more from rapid intercontinental travel than Australia.
Finally, the US plans to return to the Moon, the goal being to harvest and transport space materials as well as the desire to reposition satellites to specific orbits are driving developments of orbital transport systems to move objects to and from LEO to MEO and GEO orbits, beyond GEO, Cis-lunar, Trans-lunar, the Lagrange Points and others. This includes the ability for subsystem recovery/re-use, space vehicle servicing, orbital transfer, orbital debris collection, and replenishment of consumables and expendables on spacecraft that cannot be recovered back to Earth (e.g., spacecraft inspection/servicing, refuelling, hardware maintenance, and technology upgrades) as well as on orbit assembly and sustainment of spacecraft. Australian companies are among many that are actively involved in these developments.
Access to space is such a critical component for the growth of the Australian space sector that the Australian space community and Australian Government should take active measures to ensure that Australia has reliable access to space.
Actions could include:
2. Ensuring that the licensing regime for launching Australian payloads overseas is as streamlined as possible. The new Rules are an improvement and there is further scope to pre-qualify specific launch sites/launch vehicles which would greatly expedite the licensing process.
3. Ensuring that the licensing regime for domestic launch is no more onerous to Australian launch providers than that faced by their international competitors. The current system requires Australian launch operators to pay for safety analyses that are conducted by the government in other jurisdictions (US, NZ, Japan, China, Russia). These analyses are necessary and similar for both large and small launch vehicles but become a significant fraction of the total cost for small vehicles launching the smaller payloads which is the market entry point for Australian launch providers. These costs represent a significant hurdle for Australian competitors in this competitively priced market.
4. Ensuring that the Australian launch regulatory system is reviewed often to ensure that it is as streamlined as possible (while protecting public safety) and capable of supporting emerging technology. Australia could consider enacting legislation that enables human spaceflight from Australia to position itself to become the space tourism hub for the Asia Pacific and able to be involved in the development of suborbital point-to-point transportation.
5. Supporting the Australian launch providers by purchasing Australian rather than overseas launches wherever practicable. Historically national government support as a major customer/ supporter has been a key factor in the success of most commercial launch suppliers.
6. Undertaking a detailed review of the importance and criticality of sovereign space launch capability. Is Australia’s current reliance on the commercial launch market to supply its access to space sufficiently robust to ensure that Australia can launch its national security, weather & environmental monitoring, positioning and commercial satellites when it needs to? Can Australia withstand potential disruptions to the commercial launch market from geopolitical events (including bans on launching from certain countries), launch vehicle stand-down due to failure, supply chain disruptions and delays (including from pandemic health issues) and market saturation which prevents timely placement on a launch manifest?