Spaceport Australia

Every so often the idea of basing satellite launch facilities in Australia is kicked around and then more or less forgotten. Most recently a suggested location was near where I live: Caboolture could be the home of Australia’s first spaceport

Aside from Keith Urban growing up in Caboolture, there’s not exactly a huge claim to fame in the area (and where I live is even more obscure and often confused with ‘Brisbane’.) Thus Australia’s first Spaceport is a laudable goal. But the NIMBY brigades would have conniptions over rockets the size of a Falcon 9 thundering into the heavens over Moreton Bay.

However rockets have been getting smaller of late, as people are realising that payloads don’t need to be hulking multi-ton satellites to be useful. CubeSats, massing only a few kilograms, are becoming more and more capable, opening up mission concepts and designs. Rockets, massing only a few tons, can launch them too.

A few days ago Vector Space Systems, co-founded by a SpaceX founder, Jim Cantrell, and John Garvey, of Garvey Space, successfully launched their micro-launcher, the Vector-R. Next year, if all goes well, they hope to be launching 50 kg payloads, then 100 kg payloads in 2019. Exact payload depends on the final orbit assumed.

The Vector-R masses 5,000 kg at Liftoff. The Vector-H description doesn’t give a GLOW but delivers twice the payload so probably ~10,000 kg. They both use propylene+LOX, doubtless because of the improved Isp compared with SpaceX’s RP-1 preference. Methane will do even better, but for a small launcher, it’s a bit TOO cold.

A competitor (maybe?) is Rocket Lab, with their Electron Rocket, which uses electrically powered pumps for their rocket engine. The fact that Rocket Lab was founded by a Kiwi (i.e. a New Zealander) grates slightly, since Australia has a longer track-record in rocket research, yet has steadfastly refused to pick up its game. Maybe a space launch facility on Aotearoa might goad the Great South Land into establishing a permanent facility at last.

See? Doesn’t take much to set up a launch site. The Electron is designed to deliver a max payload of 225 kg, though nominally it’s about 150 kg. Takeoff thrust is 162 kN which, so for a GLOW to Thrust ratio of 1.5, means 11 tons launch mass. Of course, like so many prospective business avenues, Australia won’t invest until there’s a market 🙁