4 mins read 10 Oct 2022

Sustainable Space A Priority For Southern Launch

With a focus on the sustainable use of space, Southern Launch has agreed to share information with the United States Space Command that will improve the safety of rocket launches.

Artist’s concept of satellites and space debris. The Kessler syndrome suggests that cascading collisions could create a ring of debris around Earth and make orbits in LEO unusable. Credit: University of Miami.

In a first for an Australian commercial space launch provider, Southern Launch has signed a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Sharing Agreement with the United States Space Command (USSC). This is likely to be just the first step in an ongoing relationship between the USSC and Southern Launch, and one that is about establishing a model for safe, sustainable rocket launches in Australia.

Southern Launch is a launch service provider based in Adelaide with access to launch facilities at the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex and the Koonibba Test Range in South Australia. They provide launch services for customers with rocket payloads of up to about 400 kg or rockets up to 29-m tall.

The last year or so has been a busy time for Southern Launch, as they’ve been testing new launch equipment and expanding on capabilities at the Koonibba Test Range. They also partnered with TiSPACE in 2021 to launch the Taiwanese-made Hapith I rocket and have recently gained government approvals to launch two suborbital ‘Kestrel I’ rockets in the coming months.

The Kestrel I launches, dubbed VS02 and VS03, are yet to happen, and despite three attempts Hapith I didn’t leave the launch pad. That launch was plagued by bad weather, system failures, and a small fire on the rocket in a very clear demonstration of just how difficult spaceflight really is.  

But the data they collected from the launch attempts, along with data from their first successful launch back in September 2020 of the suborbital TED-01 DART, ought to have them well placed for success with VS02 and VS03.

Orbital launches though are more complex still, and with the USSC currently tracking over 47,000 objects around the Earth, it is becoming increasingly difficult to identify safe launch windows that ensure separation from the stuff that is already in orbit. That’s where the new SSA Sharing Agreement with the USSC comes in.

Sustainable Space Operations

Southern Launch provides launch services to customers and operates the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex at the tip of the Eyre Peninsula. Credit: Southern Launch.

Under the arrangement between Southern Launch and the USSC, Southern Launch will send notifications ahead of time to identify safe launch windows. In addition, to launch support, the agreement covers the exchange of information for collision avoidance, deorbit and re-entry, and disposal of expended assets.  

Lloyd Damp, the CEO of Southern Launch, said the new agreement is a landmark for commercial space activities in Australia.

“Southern Launch continues to set the standard in Australia for safe, sustainable commercial space launches. Our agreement with the United States Space Command further strengthens the commitment we have to Australia being a responsible user of space.”

The timing of this agreement comes as the region of space close to Earth, known as Low Earth Orbit (LEO), is becoming increasingly congested with mega constellations filling the available orbits. SpaceX alone has over 2,500 Starlink satellites in orbit, but the company has the required approvals to deploy at least 12,000.

In 2009 in much less crowded space a derelict Russian Kosmos satellite accidentally collided with an active Iridium satellite at a speed of over 42,000 km/hr. This was the first time a hypervelocity collision had occurred between satellites, and the collision created at least 1,000 pieces of debris larger than 10 cm in size.

Any one of those fragments could easily disable another satellite, a rocket, or even the ISS, if they tried to occupy the same bit of space at the same time.

In the worst case, a collision between two objects in orbit could have a cascading effect where the increase in space debris boosts the likelihood of more collisions and further raises the number of orbiting debris. This nightmare scenario is known as the Kessler syndrome, and according to some calculations LEO is already crowded to the point that fragments from future collisions would be generated faster than they could be removed.

If that happened, LEO would effectively become unusable. This is exactly why the SSA Sharing Agreement is so important to our sustainable use of space.

Southern Launch joins other commercial and academic partners, as well as more than 30 nations, in agreeing to greater cooperation with the USSC.