17/12/2020

One of the quiet achievers of Lot Fourteen’s mushrooming space economy is working on a project that will make history for Australia and, it hopes, lead the way to making space more accessible for all.

satellite in orbit

Space Machines Company is working with Gilmour Space Technologies to launch a 35kg spacecraft into orbit in 2022. The company will be the first Australian customer for the maiden launch by Gilmour’s Eris rocket but, perhaps more importantly, it could be the first Australian payload on an Australian rocket launched from an Australian launch site.

Co-founders Rajat Kulshrestha and George Freney see the project as the first of many to be developed at their Adelaide headquarters, believing mobility in space and space transport are to key to the future success of the entire industry.

“Both George and I thought that when we look at key industries out there and look at what’s been the major enabler of those industries in the past, it’s safe, capable and cost-effective transportation,” chief executive Kulshrestha says. “Our belief is that space is not an exception to this. We believe that with space launch companies like SpaceX, Rocket Lab and Gilmour making it easier to access space, there is a need for space-based transportation to go the last mile, to really provide that flexibility in space, whether that’s a mission in lower Earth orbit or geostationary or beyond.”

That notion led them to create the company in January 2019 and, last year, establish a base at the Stone & Chalk startup hub at Lot Fourteen in Adelaide, close to the Australian Space Agency, with the intention of building everything from space tugs to a range of vehicles to allow for in-space transportation. Space is one of the high-growth industry focus sectors at Lot Fourteen global innovation precinct, which is also home to the SmartSat CRC and other pioneering local space industry companies.

“Our vision is to be an infrastructure company for space and part of that is in-space transportation,” Kulshrestha says. “It forms the key platform on which construction and manufacture in space is enabled, the ability to move things around.”

“As we look at our transportation services, these vehicles we are designing ... will allow movement and mobility of everything from a very small satellite to a large multi-tonne apparatus.”

By providing these services, the company wants to expand access to the space economy. “Our machines will service objects in space, de-orbit them and maintain them,” Kulshrestha adds. “For us the word is mobility. In-space mobility is where the next growth will come.

“At the moment, it’s a very, very hard journey for a customer to put something into space. Our view is it should be as easy as hailing an Uber. It’s really around taking the complexity away.”

Freney, who is also director of strategy for SMC, says that simplification will benefit companies like those at Lot Fourteen - Myriota, Fleet Space Systems and Inovor - all of which want to launch satellites into space.

“We are looking at making it easier and more cost effective for them to deploy and manage their satellite constellations,” Freney says. “It’s a direct impact on the cost of these services to people on the ground. It’s cheaper to get their satellites up and it ends up being cheaper for the consumer.”

For now, SMC’s focus is on their first, ground-breaking project and working hard with Gilmour Space Technologies ready for the 2022 launch.

“We call the mission Rollout but the name of the spacecraft will be Optimus 1,” Kulshrestha laughs. “You leave it to the engineers to come up with names and there are a lot of Transformer fans out there.”

In Transformer lore, Optimus Prime is the first and best of the Autobots, so it makes perfect sense to SMC that their machine should have such a moniker. The flight itself will test the company’s subsystems in preparation for commercial flights to come.

With a staff of just 10, the company will recruit a mix of local talent and those with international experience as the project grows. “It’s such a holistic endeavour that you need everyone from engineering to testing to production and some manufacturing,” Kulshrestha says.

Freney adds: “It’s not just super technical jobs created by companies like this. There are what I like to describe as jobs for everyone around bookkeeping, legal work, all of the business stuff and advanced manufacturing. Companies like ours create hi-tech jobs but also a whole range of other work for people with different skills.”

With the clock ticking down to the 2022 launch, Kulshrestha says the company will be creating history as it goes: “I think there will be a lot of firsts we hope to share as we go. It’s really the first time Australia will be involved in the upstream manufacture of spacecraft at that scale.”

This article originally appeared in Future Adelaide