Efforts to establish commercial launch facilities in Australia may deliver results, but the economics are harsh

Peter La Franchi/CANBERRA


Three decades ago, the former European Launcher Development Organisation walked away from the Woomera Rocket Range. Now, the re-emergence of Australia as a portal to space depends on the success of four rival proposals to set up new commercial launch facilities.

These include the planned reactivation of the Woomera range by Kistler Aerospace and Spacelift Australia, and a the establishment of a new range on the Pacific coast of northern Queensland by United Launch Systems International (ULSI). A new range (above) is also mooted for Christmas Island, 2,000km (1,100nm) west of Darwin, by the Asia Pacific Space Centre consortium (APSC).

A fifth proposal may also be pending, with Australian Space Industry Chamber of Commerce officials confirming that discussions have been held with a yet-to-be-revealed consortium interested in launching from Australia.

Russia's space industry plays a key role in the four declared proposals. This comes nearly a decade after the collapse of efforts by the now-defunct Cape York Space Agency to build a spaceport in north Queensland for Russian Zenit-3 rockets.

The hard-nosed economics of the global launch market, however, remain the key determinant of whether the proposals reach lift-off. Most Australian space industry analysts predict a shake-out of players, particularly given an Australian Government policy of financial involvement with any of the proposals.

According to Dr Bruce Middleton, former head of the Australian Space Office, which no longer exists, the current wave of Australian commercial launch proposals may have come too late to enable effective market penetration - even including the Kistler proposal.

In a new analysis of the geostationary (GEO) and low earth orbit (LEO) satellite launch markets, released in mid-September, Middleton warns that launcher supply is about to exceed demand. The window of opportunity for Australia to become a successful participant in this industry is closing, he adds.

Middleton says that similar challenges confront Chinese, Japanese and Indian ambitions to develop an Asian launch industry.

Dr Ian Tuohy, chairman of the Australian Institute of Engineers National Committee on Space Engineering, warns: "It is fairly evident that the market share is not there to sustain all of the current players-looking ahead over the next 10 years or so. The [Australian launch proposals] all have their individual technical risks, but financing is the critical thing that affects all of these proposals. I think they will probably know themselves that there is a limited market out there that they are going to have to fight with some of the really big players."

Money and metal

Kistler's plan to operate the K-1 re-usable rocket to launch LEO payloads from Woomera is the most advanced proposal. However, the project has suffered significant financial problems since the Asian economic meltdown of 1997-8 and is a year behind schedule

Revised plans, outlined by Kistler officials in early September, propose a series of K-1 demonstration flights during the first quarter of next year, although it remains unclear whether these will be from Australia or from a second Kistler site in Nevada, USA.

APSC plans to contest the LEO and GEO market, with initial launch operations using the ARS-3K, a medium-sized vehicle designed and developed by Russia's Progress. Other types of Russian vehicles are also under consideration. APSC was formed in 1997 by a consortium of Australian, Asian and US investors. Current plans call for construction of the Christmas Island spaceport to start next year and be complete by mid-2001, to support initial launches in 2002. APSC hopes to launch 10-12 satellites a year from 2005 to at least 2015-20.

ULSI proposes a new-generation vehicle, the Unity-22, to be targeted at the LEO market. The ULSI consortium is made up of International Space Development of Bermuda, which holds 90% of shares, and Projects International Australia, holding the remaining 10%. International Space Development is in turn majority-owned by Thai Satellite Telecommunications (TST).

TST is also a major shareholder in the troubled Iridium LEO communications venture, and is responsible for marketing ULSI services under an agreement negotiated in July 1997.

ULSI proposes to undertake test launches from a new range near Gladstone in northern Queensland, Australia, in 2002, with commercial operations starting in 2003 at an initial rate of six launches a year.

Spacelift Australia is targeting the lower end of the commercial launch market, aiming to use the Russian SS-25-based Start rocket as the basis for a total turnkey service provided by STC-Complex MIHT. The rocket, available commercially since 1995 from Russian spaceports, is capable of lifting payloads of up to 800kg (1,760lb) into LEO orbit.

Spacelift itself will effectively operate as a launch broker, buying services for customers from STC. Rockets would be assembled in Russia to meet the needs of a particular payload and flown to Woomera, complete with the same mobile launcher used to carry the SS-25 missile, aboard an Antonov An-124.

Starting in November next year, Spacelift plans three demonstration flights from Woomera, with full commercial services available from February 2001. However, Spacelift is eager to secure customers for next year's flights to provide an initial return on the concept.

According to Middleton's analysis, the international market pursued by the Australian spaceport proponents is comprised of a yearly average of 33 GEO and 109 LEO payloads from next year to 2010. The total demand for launches to mid-earth orbit is placed at no more than nine payloads across 10 years.

The launch vehicle capacity available to carry GEO payloads of up to 4t, Middleton says, is likely to average a potential 69 available flights a year after next year, rising to more than 80 flights a year from 2005.

The net outcome, Middleton says, will be a substantial surplus of launch capability over expected demand. This, he says, will force a downward pressure on prices, which are likely to affect in particular GEO launch facilities within the Asia Pacific region, including the APSC proposal.

As the competition increases, Middleton warns, it will be increasingly difficult to raise funds commercially for projects targeting the GEO launch market.

Forecast demand

Middleton says that the forecast demand for launch of LEO payloads, while numerically larger than that for the GEO sector, is likely to total 1,205 satellites over the decade. Of this, 360, or 30% of the total, are likely to be microsats, weighing less than 400kg, with at least half of these below 100kg.

The effective commercial LEO market targeted by the commercial launch sector is therefore around 850 satellites, or 77 a year on average. This figure includes the demand for replacements to existing LEO communication satellite constellations, as well as the initial system roll-out.

The forecast supply of launch vehicles configured to support LEO payloads of up to 3,000kg, Middleton says, is expected to average 39 flights a year with a total lift capability of between 80-110 satellites. By early in the next decade, the available number of launch vehicles alone could exceed 60 flights a year.

As with the GEO market, Middleton forecasts that the LEO market will swing strongly to an excess of capability, putting pressure on launch prices and on the returns expected by investors in this launch market segment.

He warns that those planning to enter the LEO launch market should expect a tough time. Some substantial foreign companies, including Boeing, DaimlerChrysler Aerospace, Lockheed Martin and firms supported by China, India and Japan, are securing market shares.

Both APSC and ULSI would compete with these heavyweights. Even Kistler should expect difficulty in securing sufficient business in this highly competitive market to achieve and maintain commercial viability in the long term.

Source: Flight International