Composites in Space – Gilmour Space Technologies

Just north of the Gold Coast is Gilmour Space Technologies, a venture-funded Australian rocket company developing new capabilities for launching small satellites into space. Founded by two brothers in 2013, this startup is now one of Australia’s leading space companies pioneering new and innovative hybrid propulsion technologies with the goal of providing lower cost access to space.

Written by Kerryn Caulfield, Executive Director, Composites Australia 

The growing Gilmour team of around 45 working in its Gold Coast office are young. They are highly educated, well informed pioneers who are acting on ideas and driving innovation, utilising technology and pushing boundaries they may not even know exist. They are part of the “New Space Economy.”

Founding brothers, Adam and James Gilmour invested their own money before attracting venture capital to scale up and sustain the company. Having worked in banking and corporate sales for 20 years, much of it in the midst Singapore’s international financial centre, Adam is more than familiar with analysing business opportunities and the dynamics of successful start-ups. Adam says: “The business case for space no longer has to be made. It is real and our objective is to capitalise on the opportunity.”

Space-based technology provides vital services such as communications and defence systems and supports almost every sector of the economy and day-to-day lives. Gilmour Space Technologies was formed off the back of Adam’s research forecasting that over 17,000 small satellites (smallsats) would need to be launched into space over the next five years to support our growing reliance on big data and the digital economy. Adam calculates the replacement market for smallsats will be over 2,500 per annum, and a good basis for a sustainable business.

The Federal Government recently commissioned and released the Advancing Space – Australian Civil Space Strategy (2019-2028) which forecast the space industry would grow to over $US1.1 trillion by 2040 from of value of US$350 billion today. The Government’s goal is to triple the sector’s contribution to GDP to $12 billion and to create an additional 20,000 jobs by 2030.

The government also recognises that the New Space Economy is being driven by private investment in start-ups and private technology interests. To that end, it also aims to stimulate at least a $1 billion pipeline of inbound capital investment in Australia’s civil space industry sector between 2019 and 2028. The Federal government’s role is to “set a relevant legal and regulatory framework that meets international obligations and facilitates growth in industry while maintaining safe and secure operation in space and on Earth.”

Most states in Australia, including Queensland, are now competing to attract the New Space Economy. All have worthy policies to attract investment and boast geographic advantages.

For Gilmour Space, a strategic launch location and associated facilities are vital. Adam says ”We’re keen to stay in Queensland, which offers the best of both worlds with polar and equatorial orbital launch options. But then again NT could also be good for equatorial launches and South Australia is good for polar launch.”

On Monday July 29, far inland north-west of Brisbane, Gilmore Space Technologies attempted to launch its ‘One Vision’ suborbital rocket to flight test the company’s proprietary orbital-class hybrid rocket engine and demonstrate its mobile launch capability.

The 9 metre-long vehicle had a 80 kN of thrust engine and weighed in at close to 2 tonnes. At peak velocity, it was designed to travel at three-and-a-half times the speed of sound and reach an altitude of around 40 km – close to the ‘edge’ of space. Seconds before launch, however, the test rocket suffered a setback from a in the oxidiser tank pressurisation system. There was no explosion due to the safer nature of hybrid rocket engines, and no observable damage to the engine or mobile launcher.

Assessing the situation, Adam said: “Rocket engineering is all about testing, failing, learning and rebuilding. One Vision was a development and test rocket, and our lessons from here have already informed many of the design features in our next vehicle.”

Advanced materials and processes – including GFRP and CFRP – have been fundamental in enabling space travel and have made access to space more affordable and also more doable. Weight and cost-savings are critical for the space industry. Materials that can withstand the harsh conditions of space along with lightening the load for the long journey are essential. According to Adam Gilmour, “Light weighting is vital. Every kilo saved from the upper stage (third stage of the vehicle) represents a $50,000 saving – so carbon fibre is the material of choice at this point.”

All of this bodes well for the Australian composites sector. Local manufacturing/fabrication production and materials are readily available, so too R&D, testing and engineering services. “Our original plan was to build our rockets here in our Gold Coast facility, but if there is equipment and knowhow out there we are open to production partnerships,” said Adam.

One such partnership is with the University of Southern Queensland. Under the recently developed strategic agreement, the two entities will collaborate on testing new rocket technologies, such as the hybrid propulsion system that Gilmour is developing.