Business & invest,
Taking a giant leap towards the final frontier
Nick Nichols | May 29, 2020
Gilmour Space Technologies is propelling the Gold Coast towards a radical new industry, buoyed by a partnership with the Department of Defence
A partnership with the Department of Defence has positioned Gilmour Space Technologies, and the Gold Coast, at the frontline of a new era for the Australian aerospace industry.
The agreement with Defence Science and Technology (DST), the Federal Government’s lead agency responsible for applying science and technology to safeguard the national interest, broadens the market potential for Gilmour Space’s hybrid rockets which are designed to launch small commercial payloads into low earth orbit.
Company co-founder and chief executive Adam Gilmour say the agreement with DST has been two years in the making and follows growing interest by the government body in the Gold Coast company’s rapid progress in the field. It puts Gilmour Space at the forefront of the Department of Defence’s efforts to work closer with start-ups and small-to-medium enterprises in building Australia’s sovereign capabilities in space.
“This agreement gives us a foot in the door to Defence, and it gives Defence an opportunity to get to know our company, both of which could potentially see us concurrently working on projects with DST,” says Mr Gilmour.
Defence is seen as a potential customer for Gilmour Space, a company founded in 2013 by Mr Gilmour and his brother James to tap into emerging demand for low-earth orbit satellites for new-generation communications and broadband networks, among other applications.
Low-earth orbit satellites are positioned between 500km and 2000km above the Earth’s surface, compared with 36,000km for standard satellites. A ‘constellation’ of these satellites, which can rapidly receive and transmit data, offers continuous blanket global coverage for mobile networks.
DST will help Gilmour Space in the research of defence-related technologies, including propulsion materials and avionics, that could fast-track Gilmour Space’s development of a three-stage hybrid rocket to carry small payloads and satellites into orbit.
“Over the past few months there’s been a much bigger focus by DST for building and operating their own satellites,” says Mr Gilmour.
“Where we would fit in is the ability for them to launch those satellites on our rocket and put them into a specific orbit where they need it.
“The critical development for us over the last six months has been to narrow the focus of our technologies and get a preliminary design of our orbital vehicle. That has allowed us to generate a road map of technologies that we need to master getting to space.
“We’ve been sharing that list with DST and this agreement will help us with these technologies. They’re interested in our capabilities to put a satellite into orbit and there may be further opportunities down the track.”
Since starting their rocket program in 2015, Gilmour Space has established a reputation as Australia’s leading rocket technology company, supported by an advisory board including Professor Dava Newman, a former Deputy Administrator of NASA, and Colonel (Retired) Pamela Melroy, a former NASA Shuttle Commander and astronaut. Also on board is David Goodrich, the executive director of Silver Spirit Partners, who has sound experience in advising the defence, government and private sectors.
Gilmour Space is recognised for its breakthrough hybrid rocket propulsion technology that uses a combination of liquid oxidizer and solid fuel. The company pressed ahead with a second sub-orbital test of a prototype rocket in 2019 despite advanced work already in place on a new rocket design. While the test, undertaken on a massive cattle property south of Boulia in western Queensland, failed due to a malfunction in the oxidiser tank pressurisation system, Mr Gilmour took many positives from the launch.
“One of the systems we were trying to prove was our mobile launch platform and that worked flawlessly in a very harsh outback environment,” he says. “We probably invested the same amount in the launch pad as we did in the rocket, so it was a significant achievement. We have a philosophy to design, build and test as fast as we can, and failure is fine as long as we learn from that.”
Since that test, and with the enlistment of additional experienced rocket propulsion engineers from around the world, the company has developed a new hybrid fuel and engine that significantly improves performance to support the bigger payloads currently sought by the market.
“We previously designed a rocket to take a 100kg payload, but many customers we have spoken to want a payload of 200kg-plus, so we have virtually doubled the size of the rocket,” says Mr Gilmour. “The new rocket we design now is actually too big to put on a mobile launcher.”
That raises the need for a fixed launch site, and it is pressing the Queensland Government to support a new facility, preferably near Mackay, as it works towards the first commercial payload in 2022.
“From a physics perspective, the Mackay region is where we can get more opportunities for orbits, so our plan is to truck the rockets there from the Gold Coast as we’ve designed each stage to fit into a shipping container,” says Mr Gilmour.
According to NASA, the global space marketplace doubled in value to $US345 billion between 2016 and 2018. Although the industry is still in its infancy in Australia, Gilmour Space is in a strong position to capitalise on global demand.
The company signed a co-operation agreement with the Australian Space Agency, demonstrating a commitment to launch Australia to space.
“It’s an accelerating industry and there still aren’t many rockets around,” says Mr Gilmour. “While there are many companies globally looking to enter this space, there aren’t a lot of serious and well-funded companies in the world building small rockets.”
Once Gilmour Space proves its capabilities, Mr Gilmour envisages an expanded local supplier base and a tenfold increase in its Gold Coast workforce to 500 once production output reaches one rocket a month.
“We have analysed our competition in the market and we know that by the time we start making between 10 and 12 rockets a year, we will need a headcount of that size at a minimum,” he says.
“At the moment, we have an existing supplier list of more than 300 businesses, providing anything from nuts and bolts suppliers to IT support, and many of them are from the Gold Coast and Brisbane area.
“Ultimately our business will support fabricators from all over Australia, people that used to build cars, boats and other vehicles. We’ll also need more engineers, marketers, accountants, legal people, administration and human resources and the like.”
Gilmour Space, which also has a registered office in Singapore, sees the Gold Coast as a premier location to continue scaling up the business.
“We are surrounded by good universities in Brisbane and the Gold Coast which we already work with, and we’re well serviced by the supplier and industrial support base close by,” says Mr Gilmour.
“A low population means we may have to recruit talent externally, but with the lifestyle the city offers people will readily move here to work on rockets from all over Australia and the world.”
In the meantime, the next frontier for Gilmour Space is refining its rocket engines and testing key systems ahead of rocket assembly next year.
“We’re really focusing on the rocket engines at present and testing many of the other components such as the avionics systems software.
“Later this year we’ll be undertaking our main engine tests in a remote location and this promises to be very high powered and quite spectacular. That will present us with a new milestone for the company.
“We’re moving as fast as we can based on our current knowledge of rocketry and the experience of our team. It’s definitely taking longer than I originally anticipated, but it’s moving forward and we’re confident this is going to be a good year for us with many more milestones to come.”
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