What was the chicken, and what was the egg? The Australian Government established the Australian Space Agency in 2017, and announced in 2018 that it would be set up in Adelaide.

man holding a rocket

Adelaide has a thriving space ecosystem. Which drove what?

There was a space industry in Adelaide that “well and truly” predated the Space Agency, says Lloyd Damp, chief executive of Australian space company, Southern Launch. In September, Damp’s company launched two rockets carrying experimental payload to the edge of space (after one misfire), from the Koonibba site in the far west of South Australia.

These rockets were the precursor to rocket launches to space from the company’s Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex near Port Lincoln on the Eyre Peninsula, which will tap into the polar orbit.

Although SA is home to the Woomera Range Complex — which launched more than 500 rockets in five decades of activity — the space industry that has kicked off in SA in the 21st century has “nothing to do with Woomera”, says Damp, who worked there.

“Adelaide is a tech-oriented city and space really kicked off because we had a group of smart people who began to notice that advancements in technology were finding their way into space technologies — things such as nanosatellites,” Damp explains

“The amazing progress in miniaturised satellites meant that instead of being the size of a bus, and costing hundreds of millions of dollars each, satellites were all of a sudden the size of a bar fridge, and a lot cheaper. In no time, they were the size of a loaf of bread, and even cheaper. There are now companies launching satellites that are the size of credit cards, which is just astronomical.”

Concurrent with that, he says, Adelaide’s tech entrepreneurs had begun to understand the market demand.

“You can’t build an industry without a market for the industry,” he says.

“The people behind Inovor Technologies, Fleet Space Technologies, Myriota, were all started well before the Space Agency was even announced.

“We’d often meet for a beer, or a lunch, and talk about things like the Internet of Things (IoT) and connectivity, and all of the things that people have come to expect in their lives: GPS, mobile connectivity, EFTPOS and so on. All of those things depend on nanosatellites.

“Space technology is used by everyone in Australia, every single day. We could not live without it.”

At the same time, says Damp, the capability of that technology to do things such as perform computations, process images or relay IoT messages, went through the roof.

“All of a sudden, he says you had a ‘small form’ factor that was very, very capable.”

It’s this compactness of size that has given Adelaide its leg-up.

“Most people think ‘space’ has to be very big equipment, but these days, the satellites — and the rockets that carry them — are smaller and cheaper, and that gives us a business,” says Damp.

“Instead of having one huge satellite, you can now have a constellation of small satellites with small payloads, doing a lot of things.”

Southern Launch has identified a launch site, at Whaler’s Way on the Eyre Peninsula, that gives it access to the polar orbit — around the North and the South poles — as opposed to the equatorial track that most satellites take.

“These newer satellites, because they’re that much smaller, they go around the North and the South poles, and very few launch facilities around the world are able to service that, with the safety of launching straight out over the ocean. We’ll launch over the Great Australian Bight, into that polar orbit, into low-earth orbit.”

Construction of the Whaler’s Way Orbital Launch Complex is scheduled to be completed ahead of the first launch in 2021, with Southern Launch already contracted for flights.

“Small satellites, in the class of 1kg to 500kg, are in high demand, and we’ll be putting them up there,” Damp says.

Co-founder and chief executive of Fleet Space Technologies Flavia Tata Nardini is a trained rocket scientist, but moved to Adelaide with her partner in 2012. Her first start-up, a space education company called LaunchBox, taught school students how to build 3D nanosatellites, which they launched into the stratosphere. In 2015 — before the Space Agency came to Adelaide — she founded Fleet Space Technologies, a space company connecting the IoT across the world through a fleet of small, low-cost satellites.

Fleet has launched four satellites in the past two years and plans further launches next year as it works to build a constellation of more than 100 nanosatellites. Tata Nardini says the company’s mission is “to build Earth’s digital nervous system,” by helping to bring 75 billion IoT devices and sensors online by 2025.

“People don’t realise what a revolution the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) is going to be,” she says.

“Our fleet of small low-cost satellites will enable machine-to-machine data exchange and deploy IoT sensor networks at scale. We’re making it faster, simpler and cheaper to connect the world’s devices.

“The true beauty of what nanosatellite companies are doing is democratising the technology that has only been available to well-funded governments and billion-dollar companies — but the nano level means that the costs are less, and we can serve councils, cities, mining, oil, and gas, energy, agriculture — a whole lot of downstream customers.”

The satellites are built in California by Tyvak, and the American company has announced plans to establish a facility in Adelaide.

“We focus on building the radio on the satellites, managing the constellation and making sure that the data goes in an app to the customers,” Tata Nardini says.

“The real value of this is the data.”

Having its head office in Adelaide is “fantastic” for Fleet, she says.

“We’ve managed to hire the best brains. Universities in Australia have excellent talent and we’ve got these great people working for us — it’s really a joy.”

Although Adelaide did not need the Australian Space Agency’s headquarters to start its space industry, the agency has certainly galvanised the industry — especially with joining the Lot Fourteen innovation neighbourhood, amid a community of space-related start-ups, including SmartSat CRC, Inovor Technologies, SITAEL, Myriota and Neumann Space, and neighbouring institutes such as the Australian Institute for Machine Learning (AIML), the University of Adelaide and University of South Australia.

From nothing just a few years ago, SA’s space industry now has more than 80 organisations, companies and education institutions, with more than 800 employees.

And although it may have arrived late on the scene, the Australian Space Agency certainly has plans to push the industry along.
The agency’s deputy head, Anthony Murfett, says it has a goal “of tripling the size of the Australian space economy to $12bn, and creating an additional 20,000 jobs by 2030”.

Pictured, aeronautical engineer and Southern Launch chief executive Lloyd Damp with a rocket which carry commercial microsatellites. Picture: Kelly Barnes

This article originally appeared in The Australian's Future Adelaide Special Report.