Australia Looks to Make Giant Leaps As it Boosts Space Sector
Gilmour Space illustrationGEELONG, Australia — Like many countries, Australia recently followed the United States’ lead and created a space force in recognition of the domain’s growing importance.
But it is not stopping there.
The nation is on a long path to make it less dependent on allies such as the United States for space-based capabilities such as military communications satellites, as well as the ability to launch them from its own soil.
“Australians are offering a very clear and compelling vision of their national programs and their space ambition,” Johnathan Caldwell, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin’s military space division, told reporters at Avalon — The Australian Air Show.
“They're creating the right environment for an industry enriching investment. And they're providing confidence to companies like ours that the market will be an enduring market,” he added.
One key sign of the nation’s seriousness about the realm is the creation of the Defence Space Command, which was established under the Royal Australian Air Force in January 2022.
It is responsible for coordinating the military’s space mission areas and executing its Defence Space Strategy, which was published in 2022.
Among the command’s main lines of effort is the goal of “advancing Australia’s sovereign space capability to support the development of a sustainable national space enterprise,” the command has stated.
The continent has several advantages when it comes to space operations, not the least of which is its location in the Southern Hemisphere where it can monitor the domain from its unique vantage point, experts have noted.
Since the beginning of the space age, it has hosted monitoring stations on its coasts — Satellite Ground Station West in Kojareba, Western Australia, and Satellite Ground Station East in Kapooka, New South Wales — where satellite operators have vantage points looking out over the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The Australian Defence Force has long been a participant in the U.S. military’s Wideband Global Satcom System, purchasing satellites and providing capabilities such as ground stations as part of the constellation that brings broadband communications to troops.
But Australia is seeking to be more than a convenient location for others’ space-based capabilities.
Its JP9102 program seeks to build a series of military communications satellites — plus the ground infrastructure to support them — all under the control of the Space Defence Force.
Richard Franklin, U.K. managing director and head of secure communications for Airbus, said, “It's a major program with a big budget.”
The latest published estimates for the program’s cost is 4 billion Australian dollars — roughly 2.7 billion in U.S. dollars.
The Australian subsidiaries for Airbus, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and a Singapore-based consortium called Optus were among the known competitors for the program.
About a month after the air show, the government named Lockheed Martin the “preferred bidder” for the program, which an industry source said is a status just short of a contract award.
The original plan called for the first satellite to be launched in 2026 with full operational capability in the early 2030s, but progress has stalled.
Air Vice-Marshal David Scheul, head of the Ministry of Defence’s air defence and space systems division, said the project would deliver Australia’s first sovereign-controlled satellite communication system over the Indo-Pacific ocean regions.
“Currently across defense there [are] up to 89 capabilities which depend on satellite communications,” Scheul said in a statement.
The new satellite communication system will include: Australia controlled and operated geo-stationary communications satellites; multiple ground stations across Australia; an integrated satellite communications management system; and two new satellite communications operations centers, the statement said.
Franklin said prior to the announcement that Australia essentially wants what the company did for the United Arab Emirates when it wanted complete control of its military space assets. Airbus helped develop the capability for the UAE some seven years, then essentially “handed them the keys.” Nowadays the company is only occasionally called in to resolve technical issues.
“I think Australia has an opportunity to have a sovereign capability. And that's certainly what we would suggest — the ability to operate the system, the satellites, the comms, and so on, in the way that Australia decides without recourse to anyone else,” he said.
The prime contractors vying for the program took advantage of the government’s long pause to form partnerships with Australian startups and small and medium-sized businesses.
“We believe Australia is a critical partner helping deliver space capabilities to like-minded nations,“ Caldwell said.
Lockheed Martin is looking to expand its global supply chain to grow the space ecosystem, which is rapidly expanding. “It's simply not something that one company can do on its own,” he added.
“There's an enormous amount of untapped potential in Australia. We've had a partnership here for now more than seven decades in certain aspects of space. But we've realized that there are a lot of additional areas that we can tap into,” Caldwell said.
Franklin said yes, there is a big focus on the satellite program, “But this is also cultivated from the growing strength of the industry here in Australia in space. And, fundamentally, I'm very optimistic about the future of space in Australia — this program being one element of it — but there will be, I think, a very positive future for the sector in this part of the world.”
In the remote sensing, or spy satellite, realm, the Australian Defence Force has a two-phase approach for its DEF799 program. The first phase is setting up the ability to acquire commercially available high-resolution space-based imagery. Phase 2 would be launching and operating its own spacecraft, according to a fact sheet.
Such systems do not require large spacecraft, as is the vision for the communication satellites.
Meanwhile, local startups are looking at ways to give the nation the sovereign means to loft satellites from the nation’s soil.
Hypersonix Launch Systems is developing a maneuverable aircraft that can reach speeds of Mach 7 or higher. It recently scored a major contract with the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit, which is seeking hypersonic missiles and aircraft for weapon systems.
However, Hypersonix’s ultimate goal is to use its scramjet-based technology to launch small satellites, the company’s managing director David Waterhouse said in a statement.
“Our longer term focus is to capture a slice of the emerging multi-billion dollar commercial market for deployment of small satellites,” he said.
Although its booth at Avalon only occupied one small corner of the Queensland pavilion, Gilmour Space Technologies proved to be one of the most crowded spots on the trade show floor.
The company was founded by brothers Adam Gilmour, who serves as CEO, and James Gilmour, head of launch operations. They have aspirations to launch satellites, and to build them as well.
It’s two primary programs are its Eris rockets and G-class satellites.
“We saw quite a bit of demand for rocket launches and our G-Sat platforms here in Australia; and we wanted to be a full-service provider to our government,” Adam Gilmour said in an email interview.
The company is based on the Gold Coast in the state of Queensland, which is establishing itself as the nation’s go-to region for space launch. The open ocean downrange as well as its enviable location near the equator gives it advantages over other locations, and space startups are flocking to the region.
“I think its geographic location is attractive to launch companies here, but it could also be that our efforts are attracting other space companies and suppliers to co-locate around us,” Gilmour said.
Despite Australia’s many advantages for launch operations, it has carried out relatively few missions since the dawn of the space age.
NASA sent a scientific satellite to orbit from a pad in the nation’s Northern Territory in July 2022, but that was the first launch in the nation in 27 years.
Australia’s close neighbor and ally New Zealand has had more success, after the U.S.-based company Rocket Lab established a pad on the North Island's Mahia Peninsula. Its Electron launch system has been steadily carrying out missions at the site since 2017.
As far as developing its own launch technology, Australian companies are mostly on their own due to U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations rules that prevent the transfer of sensitive technologies.
Lockheed Martin officials said it has no local partnerships or programs when it comes to the launch sector.
Gilmour Space’s Eris rockets use high-thrust hybrid engines as that technology was seen as an easier path.
“As a company based in Australia, which had almost zero rocket talent, it was faster for us to develop a hybrid engine than a large liquid rocket engine,” Gilmour said.
“We do partner with a number of companies in Europe, though most of our tech is from Australia. Of course, we would love to work with U.S. companies, but ITAR doesn't allow us to do so for launch,” he added.
The recent trilateral agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia to build the latter a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, known as AUKUS, also calls for the three nations to cooperate on a host of emerging technologies, although launch systems is not on the list.
However, experts have said the agreement will have to result in ITAR restrictions coming down between the three nations if the program is to succeed. That may happen with launch systems as well.
Caldwell said: “There's a place for everyone when it comes to building space systems.”