After moving with his family from South Africa, studying space engineering at Sydney University and working for Defence in the Woomera Prohibited Area – the vast military testing site 450km north of Adelaide – Lloyd Damp moved to apply his skills to private enterprise.
He and his colleagues chose Whalers Way, about 35km southwest of Port Lincoln, as the site to kickstart a nascent industry with huge promise.
He tells InDaily South Australia can be a “global gateway to space” over the next decade, rather than just a footnote to the international narrative on space.
InDaily: Why did you choose Whalers Way? What’s special about that site?
We had about 13 different criteria that we needed a site to satisfy. The key ones around rocket launch are safety to people and safety to the environment.
Our whole site development is to enable rockets to launch southward, out towards the South Pole, to put satellites around the north and the south pole.
We needed all the population to be north of the location so that the rockets don’t fly over anybody.
Very importantly, there has to be very little shipping, and very little air traffic through the ocean in front of the launch area.
Likewise, the land had to be relatively large – hundreds of hectares.
And you can’t be within a protected area – you can’t go and convert a national park into a rocket launch site.
We looked around the entire southern coastline of Australia and applied these criteria.
Turns out that Whalers Way ticked all the boxes.
When are we likely to see satellites launching from your site on the Eyre Peninsula?
The process is that the Australian Space Agency approves both the launch facility and the rockets.
Getting a facility operational requires planning approval – that’s done at a state level with input from federal, around the environmental aspects.
The next one is to prove that the individuals operating the facility are competent. And the third requirement is proof that we actually have the funding to go forth and build the facility.
We’re still in the process. We’re currently going through a major project development because, as you can imagine, we’ve actually never built one of these commercial orbital facilities in Australia.
There’s been, I think, 18 attempts around planning and processes – but that was more about big rockets that would be used to shoot rockets around the equator.
But a private company in Australia hasn’t yet launched anything into space.
How would you describe your target customer base?
We are targeting our infrastructure to what’s known as micro and small lift rockets. The smallest rocket we’re looking to launch is around 10 metres tall and the largest is about 30 metres.
They are the types of vehicles being developed by startups and a couple of the big (companies) to service very niche markets all around the time it takes to get a satellite off the manufacturing line and into space.
What do the satellites you are hoping to launch do exactly?
Satellites have shrunk at an incredible rate and what had to be contained within very large satellites can now be contained within satellites the size or shoeboxes or little bar fridges.
That means that now we can do 5G internet from space.
We can monitor piracy from space.
We can launch sensors into space to look at the hydration levels of a field in the Barossa, say, looking at how well the vines are growing.
A farmer can (use) and app and think, ‘today, do I need to do something with paddock number 17, because the vines are under a lot of heat stress – no, because I’ve just got this data’.
It’s providing that more regular data so that you and I, and the next person, can really create an efficient economy.
What is the advantage of small satellites over large ones?
Think of the NBN satellites – we’ve actually got two Sky Muster satellites. They cost around $200 million each and they have a life of 15 years. They last a long time but they cost a heck of a lot.
Where the NBN is providing you, the user, with a home broadband service, there’s lots of what’s known as ‘latency’, because the light has to travel from your satellite dish on your roof out to the satellite 35,000 kilometres away and all the way back down to the ground.
It’s a long way away. Compare that to a constellation of small satellites, 500 or 600 kilometres from the Earth, where each costs between half a million and a million dollars.
All of a sudden you can put up 100 satellites at $1 million each and you’ve created a capability that’s far closer to the Earth, so it’s far cheaper to get there, and you can replace the satellites quickly. They only have to last two or three years and we de-orbit them – they burn up in the atmosphere – and we can replace them with better technology.
With these small satellites, all of a sudden you will be able to use your mobile phone to get a fantastic data rate just above you and interact quicker with the world.
Has Australia fallen behind in the ‘space race’?
I think we’re at risk of falling behind.
The space world is moving at an incredible pace. There is a huge, huge demand to get these smaller satellites into orbit.
Be it a rocket manufacture and development process or a launch facility process, the Europeans and the Americans are running at a million miles an hour.
My concern is that if we try and over-constrain what companies can do. Or if (authorities) are not willing to accept some form of risk – rocket launch is risky – it will just stifle the industry. Simple as that.
What does the business model look like?
Southern Launch is building the infrastructure to enable small and micro-lift launch vehicles to come and use our facility and get into orbit.
We are building the launch pads, the assembly buildings, all of that supporting infrastructure.
Our business model includes options for companies to use facilities that we will maintain or to come and create their own facilities on our land.
What will the Australian Space Agency in Adelaide do for a company like yours and for the local space industry more broadly?
They are the regulatory body around ensuring that launches are done safely, securely, et cetera.
We’re working very closely with them to make sure that the operations we are planning meet their criteria.
And we’re not trying to do that alone. We’re starting to partner with companies around Australia to bring that knowledge into Southern Launch.
For the broader ecosystem, they will help to drive and promote space – very importantly from my perspective is rocket launch – in the national agenda.
There are two things that excite kids: space and dinosaurs and – golly gumdrops – we are doing space here.
I would say it’s an easy sell, but there’s so much momentum we’ve got to build to get the point of being able to do the launch, and the agency will help us with that momentum.
PM Scott Morrison announced a $6 million mission control centre for the Space Agency last week. Is that important for a company like yours?
Any and every rocket launch will require a mission control centre. So Southern Launch – we will need one.
If we can use a dual-use facility (at the space agency) and timeshare it with other companies it means that the overall cost to Southern Launch decreases, especially in the early stages of our operations.
When we are, let’s say, doing a rocket launch once a month, then totally understand that we will need to find our own facility.
But I think it’s a fantastic incentive and it will help companies like mine get those first few runs on the board.
Is South Australia’s location on the globe important for launching satellites?
Very, very much so.
To be able to launch into these polar orbits, you can’t just do that from anywhere.
You can’t do it from Europe. It’s very difficult to do it from the US.
But Australia, with nothing below us (to the south) we have such an opportunity to jump on that and make it our own.
Are people sending satellites into that North-South orbit now?
They are, but it’s very difficult. There are only a handful of places that you can do it from. Some of them are controlled US military sites, others are up in the Arctic Circle.
There’s over 80 companies worldwide developing these small rockets.
But the majority of them have nowhere to go to launch their rockets if they want to service this new orbit, that people up until now haven’t really been using.
If you want to launch a satellite around the equator, you need to be near the equator.
If you want to launch a satellite that goes perpendicular to the equator, around the north and the south poles, you need to be close to the north and the south poles.
There is a bunch of maths and velocities and orbital mechanics behind that, but that’s the high-level hand waving.
The best location is at the north and the south poles, but the weather is terrible.
You don’t want to be in the Roaring Forties – so the best spot is 30 to 40 degrees north or south of the equator, and South Australia is at roughly minus 35 degrees south. That’s the sweet spot.
Is there something that you can do in this North-South orbit that you can’t do around the equator?
When you launch a satellite into a polar orbit, as you are going North-South, the Earth is rotating on its axis.
So theoretically, you could use a small handful of satellites in your constellation and you can get an entire coverage of the globe. If you launch them around the equator, all you would be seeing is what’s near the equator.
That’s the huge driver behind this North-South orbit – especially if you’re making small satellites.
You’re getting in at the ground floor of this industry in Australia. What would you see as the future of the space industry here?
I get so excited when people ask me this question.
The moment you create launch capability it creates a centre of gravity for all sorts of other industries.
First, you’ll start to attract the satellite manufacturers and the rocket manufacturers into and around Australia.
Then you start to attract the companies that provide the payload that go on board the satellites – so all of a sudden the Universities are starting to look at next-generation communication technology, laser comms, using high-end telescopes to look at supernova, the STEM outreach just explodes.
Where can we go? Wow. I think we should seriously be considering missions around the Moon.
We can do this. We have all of the fundamental technology to do this.
What sort of missions to the Moon?
The US is putting together their Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway (a proposed space station that would orbit the Moon).
That is going to be their stepping stone to Mars and to other planets. Before they send people to Mars they want to colonise the moon.
To send everything from Earth to the Moon costs an absolute fortune to get tonnes of building material and the like up there.
It costs $100 million to take a tonne of water to the Moon.
That’s why there is a very large interest in trying to mine the Moon for water. What is Australia fantastically good at? Mining. Exploration.
This is one area that we can make an impact on a global scale.
We would no longer be just a footnote in the world of space. We don’t have to be the footnote as part of somebody else’s space narrative.
We can help colonise the Moon and go to other planets.
They believe they’ve detected water in some of the shadows in the craters in the Moon’s north and south poles.
They also believe that they’ve observed water molecules skipping along the surface of the Moon.
As it gets hot in the sun, the molecules come up into the atmosphere and as the moon gets cold, as the Moon goes into shadow, it drops down again.
Is it a good idea to be putting people on the Moon? It does get quite cold there. We’ve seen movies about that shadow.
NASA did a study back in 2013 around ‘what is the impact that their space exploration has on the broader economy’?
The report points to a 10-times return on investment.
For every dollar NASA spends on space tech, $10 gets generated in a broader social and economic sense.
So, we’re going to get to the Moon. Well, the technology that we have to develop to enable us to send people to live on the Moon is going to one day find its way into making better air filtration systems for our buildings, better ways of mobility around our cities, better ways to communicate.
If we just look at going to the Moon as the end goal, besides planting the Australian flag on the moon, which I think would be awesome, the impact it will have for us here on Earth is astronomical.
I know, I couldn’t resist that.
So what time scale are we talking about here? The next decade? In our lifetime? The next 100 years?
Honestly, I believe that we could do this in probably five years – send something to map out the resources on the Moon.
At the moment there’s a very big cooperative research centre being put together, led by UniSA and Nova Systems to develop next-generation satellite technology.
This is all this advanced communication. All the special types of sensors that you would need to look for, say, water on the Moon.
That’s not the goal, but that’s the type of thing they could do.
Artificial intelligence in space.
We can use the advanced artificial intelligence we develop in Australia on the Moon.
I think it’s far closer than we imagine – if we want to do it.
But would we be sending astronauts from Australia up to the Moon?
I would love to think that we could. It comes down to a national desire to.
It’s all about the challenge. We’ve already had three Australians go up in space.
We’d need the rocket that’s capable of doing it (like) the Falcon. Big, big rockets.
Independently, no. But nothing that’s done in space is ever done independently as a country.
We’d have to partner with the European Space Agency, with NASA or with someone else to do it.
What would you be looking for out of the upcoming state budget in June?
The Government’s continued support.
They have done fantastic things for space in South Australia and internationally, as had the previous Government.
I’ve been very, very impressed. It’s across all aspects of Government.
It’s not only being pushed forward by the Premier.
All of their commercialisation and research grant schemes – this is the type of thing that not only attracts businesses to South Australia, but it creates a cohesive network where companies can work together and develop really high impact engineering, science and physics.
That will go on to make an impact globally.
I think what they’re doing is fantastic, having attracted the space agency is just the cherry on the top and I can’t wait to see what they’re going to put forward in the next budget.
What does the future look like for your company?
By the end of next year, our goal is to have our site operational and start testing the policies, the procedures.
Whether that means we do end up launching a rocket at that point, I don’t know. But that’s around the timeframe that we’re looking at.
In five years? Wow.
I can see us becoming a global gateway to space.
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