6 minute read

Catching a ride on a caravan to space

By Shaun Kenyon, Satellite Program Manager, Gilmour Space Technologies

Gilmour Space Technologies’ Satellite Program Manager, Shaun Kenyon, talks about a new 100kg-class microsatellite technology demonstration mission that could boost growth and innovation in Australia’s NewSpace sector.

There has never been a more exciting time for space activities in Australia. There isn’t a month that goes by without a headline-grabbing announcement of heavy investment, a major development milestone being met, or yet another international space player moving in. There is phenomenal potential for Aussie Space…

But we could go faster.

Collectively, we as an industry are scrambling to hire the talent we need to power the growth of our sector. Creative start-ups, with passionate founders and brilliant engineers are competing fiercely for morsels of flight opportunity — the lack of which is depriving our newest innovators of the chance to get their first missions off the ground.

Technical teams (on the satellite front) are getting side-tracked from their real innovation by having to work on peripheral ‘overhead’ technologies such as “interface adaptors”, custom esoteric space-only protocols, or respinning a board to fit a different form factor.

And many promising new technologies continue to languish in the TRL (Technology Readiness Level) valley of death.

Australia needs more flight opportunities

Yes, flight opportunities for technology demonstrations are starting to emerge — shout-out to the great teams building SpIRIT and Kanyini! As 6U CubeSats, however, the power and volume available to the national space community is incredibly limited, and hotly contested.

I say this as someone who has worked on scores of CubeSat missions now in orbit, and who’s still a big fan of the CubeSat movement – it’s so much easier to innovate when you’re not fighting for every cubic millimetre of volume and every milliwatt of power.

Readily available, predictable access to orbital flight opportunities for new Australian space tech is what is needed. Without it, we can watch other space nations overtake us, and any chance of leapfrogging the incumbent space players will evaporate.

At Gilmour Space, we are committed to moving fast. We are also committed to building a rich, diverse, and domestic supply chain for space technologies. We WILL go faster… if we go together.

With that in mind, Gilmour Space is providing one of our 100-kilogram class satellites (a “G-Sat”) as a dedicated Technology Demonstrator mission for Australia’s new space

technologies. For those of you who think in CubeSat units – we’re providing over 125U (yes, one hundred and twenty-five units) of payload volume. That’s a lot of new technologies. We want satellite hardware developers to get to space quickly, cost effectively, and with as little overhead NonRecurring Engineering (NRE) as possible.

Opening that bottleneck will allow Australia’s new space SMEs to prove their kit in orbit faster and easier. Domestic, sovereign primes can start selecting local hardware suppliers with real flight heritage; and more and more new engineers get a taste of having their work in orbit.

This approach works. This approach is not new.

ESA’s Proba program has yielded countless new capabilities for European space technology developers and paved the way for the Copernicus program and their Sentinel series of satellites.

JAXA’s Innovative Satellite Technology Demonstration Program has also accelerated the capability of the Japanese space industry. One mission alone (RAPIS-1) yielded two new spin-out companies, seven new technologies pushed to TRL9, and enabled 41 subsequent sales of space subsystems.

The UK’s TechDemoSat was the forerunner and derisking satellite for later innovative missions like NovaSAR, which the Australian EO community makes use of – showing that international sales can be generated from microsatellite technology demonstration missions.

I haven’t even mentioned the impact of NASA’s multiple technology demonstration programs.

The point is this: 100kg-class microsatellite technology demonstration missions like this are like a shot of adrenaline for a national space industry looking to grow and innovate faster.

It gives multiple organisations the opportunity to get their first kit in space, unrestricted by a CubeSat volume. More power is available, and the mission-level efforts and costs can be shared over many more payloads.

We go faster, together

This cost-competitive hosted payload mission will launch on Gilmour Space’s Caravan-1 Eris rideshare mission (indicatively 500km, 33 degrees inclination) in the fourth quarter of 2024.

Why not get orbit experience by catching a ride on our Caravan to space? No mission-level engineering required.

A G-sat Payload User Guide is already available to those serious about launching with us. It includes information on the Mechanical, Electrical, Thermal, and Software interfaces, along with what we expect in terms of how you’d demonstrate that your equipment is flight worthy. If you are familiar with CubeSat flight qualification tests, then you will find it straightforward. This is just a first step for us. We believe in an Australian space technology industry that provides leadership in the Asia Pacific region, collaborates for the benefit of all, and contributes to the global efforts to push humanity towards the stars.

It gives multiple organisations the opportunity to get their first kit in space, unrestricted by a CubeSat volume. More power is available, and the mission-level efforts and costs can be shared over many more payloads.

Successful cooperation is only possible if we are smart about inter-operability, as the CubeSat community has admirably demonstrated. We think the same is possible for the Microsatellite community; and we are quietly working on a Microsatellite NewSpace Standard to promote interoperability and minimise the need for payload developer NRE on every new mission.

We can move faster as an industry if our equipment is compatible; and we’d love to work with you on it.

With greater flight opportunities to try out new things, and a common set of known interfaces for satellite hardware, we can propel ourselves forward and make sure that Australia takes its place in space. Kangaroos are the best at playing leapfrog.

About the Author

Shaun is the Satellite Program Manager at Gilmour Space Technologies, Australia's leading manufacturer of launch vehicles and satellite platforms. With over 15 years of space engineering experience across Europe, Shaun has built a number of small satellites for commercial, institutional and government missions. Today, he leads a team of engineers in Gold Coast, QLD, to design and build Australia’s first sovereign 100kg satellite.