Gilmour Space Neck and Neck with Competitors
Australia-based launch provider Gilmour Space successfully tested its first full-scale orbital engines at the turn of the new year, marking an important milestone in the company’s quest to begin launching smallsats by 2020. According to Gilmour Space CEO and founder Adam Gilmour, the company has already secured letters of intent from “some major players,” and aims to sign its first contracts after the next demonstration flight above 70 km this year.
The results from the first engine test were promising: “There was fast ignition, 45 kN of thrust generated as predicted by our models, stable pressures across the oxidizer lines, better-than-expected performance from our thermal insulators, and a reasonably stable burn,” Gilmour told Via Satellite.
Most commercial rockets today use either solid (Minotaur, Vega, Long March 11) or liquid (Atlas 5, Ariane 5, H 2A) propellant. Gilmour Space’s Eris rocket, however, combines liquid oxidizer with a self-developed solid fuel, not unlike Rocket Crafters Inc.’s Intrepid family of vehicles. The company pursued a hybrid model, Gilmour said, because it is less complex and explosive than liquid or solid rockets, and because they have the ability to be stopped, restarted and throttled. “That makes them cheaper to manufacture, safer to launch, and capable of maneuvering in space,” he said.
Eris is designed to carry payloads of up to 380 kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), more than 1.5 times the launch capacity of Rocket Lab’s Electron, for comparison. This opens the opportunity for Gilmour Space to launch larger-sized smallsats into orbit at “very competitive prices,” Gilmour said — anywhere between $21,000 to $35,000 per kg depending on payload size and orbit inclination.
Although constellation operators are the company’s main focus, Gilmour said it is targeting a relatively small slice of market share, aiming at just one launch per month for the first few years. As such, Gilmour said he isn’t particularly anxious about the increasing competition from both established and NewSpace launch providers. “[I’m] not very worried about the old established players, as they have cost models that aren’t competitive for the small launch market,” he said. “Also not that concerned about Virgin or Rocket Lab, as I believe the market is large enough to support a number of small satellite launch companies for now. In fact, it would be very good for the whole smallsat industry to see the two companies launch successfully this year.”
Rocket Lab just completed its second test flight this month, orbiting satellites for Planet and Spire Global. Virgin Orbit, meanwhile, is still qualifying its LauncherOne air-launch platform, with initial flights targeted for the first half of 2018. Gilmour Space is now just about neck-and-neck with these competitors and others, planning a suborbital test launch for the second quarter. That successful flight will trigger the next round of funding for the company, Gilmour said, “as that takes away a major technology risk.”
As far as a home base for its launch operations, Gilmour pointed to Kennedy Space Center in Florida as a definite possibility. But there are locations in Australia that could potentially be even more ideal for the company, as they would allow for launches to both polar and equatorial orbits, he said. Previously, this wasn’t an option — the stringent aerospace regulations in Australia made setting up a launch site unfeasible.
“For example, current regulations in Australia require companies to be insured for $750 million for any vehicle travelling above 100 km. This translates into an insurance cost of $750,000 per launch, even for suborbital rockets launched from the most remote areas of the country,” Gilmour wrote on the company’s website in August 2017. “In the U.S., insurance costs start at around $20,000 for suborbital rockets, and generally top at under $500,000 for very large orbital rockets.”
Now that the Australian government has publicly committed to setting up a national space agency, the country could see an evolution from the launch approval process Gilmour described as “laborious and draconian.” This opens the door for Gilmour Space to serve its peers in the Australian NewSpace community, such as Fleet.