6 May 2024

Southern Launch completes first rocket launch from Koonibba Test Range

Southern Launch has completed the first launch of German company HyImpulse’s suborbital rocket from its Koonibba Test Range.

Three, two, one … liftoff! When HyImpulse’s SR75 rocket roared into the atmosphere from Southern Launch’s Koonibba Test Range on 3 May 2024, it heralded major firsts for both companies.

It was the first launch from Southern Launch’s permanent facilities at the Koonibba Test Range, and the first using the company’s mid-range launcher.

It was also the first launch for HyImpulse’s SR75 suborbital rocket. The German company is trialling a new propulsion technology that combines solid paraffin with a liquid oxidiser. This non-explosive ‘green’ rocket fuel has a lower environmental impact than conventional fuel. HyImpulse is validating the technology so it can progress to the next stage of development.

‘We are incredibly proud to have been a part of this historic mission,’ says Lloyd Damp, Southern Launch CEO. ‘The Koonibba Test Range is world-class and hosting this mission has demonstrated the outstanding expertise and experience of the Southern Launch and HyImpulse teams.’

‘This launch at the Koonibba Test Range was incredible,’ says Mario Kobald, HyImpulse CEO. ‘We could feel the support from everyone here in Koonibba as well as our team back home in Germany.’

‘Our team at HyImpulse has been developing our unique hybrid rocket technology for many years,’ adds Christian Schmierer, HyImpulse Co-CEO. ‘This successful launch proves that our technology is viable and is a great step forward as we move toward developing our SL1 orbital launch vehicle.’

World-class launch and return facilities

Southern Launch owns and operates two sites located within 400 kilometres of each other in South Australia.

The 41,000-square kilometre Koonibba Test Range is a suborbital site located on the Eyre Peninsula. Manufacturers can launch their rockets 350 kilometres into space and return them to the range. Spacecraft launched in another location can also be returned to this range.

The Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex is located on the tip of the Eyre Peninsula. This site allows rocket manufacturers to make direct ascents into orbit, saving on rocket fuel. The low sea and air traffic in the area also provides large and flexible launch windows.

‘Nowhere else in the world has world-class launch and return facilities within 400 kilometres of each other,’ says Amy Featherston, Southern Launch’s Communications and Media Manager. ‘We really want to capitalise on that.’

An ideal destination for rocket launches and returns

Australia’s vast, flat and empty lands, clear skies, and streamlined regulatory process are major advantages when it comes to space launches and returns.

‘When we have delegations come out to Australia, it crystallises our competitive advantages,’ says Featherston. ‘They are amazed at the sheer scale and remoteness of the sites.

‘There are other test launch sites around the world, but ours is unique for its accessibility. It’s easier to launch or return a spacecraft here than in mountainous terrain in Europe or the US. We also have clear weather year-round. The Swedish test range, for example, is minus 30 degrees Celsius six months of the year.’

One reason why HyImpulse chose to launch from Australia was because it could easily recover its rocket. ‘Our team and Koonibba community members will track the rocket as it comes off the launch. We will retrieve the rocket together to minimise any impacts on their lands.’

Getting approvals for a launch is also straightforward compared to other jurisdictions. ‘For instance, Australia’s airspace is controlled by one body,’ says Featherston. ‘In Europe, you need to get approvals from multiple airspace bodies. Here, it’s a one-stop-shop. Australia is smaller by nature, but that means we can be nimbler and more flexible in how we do things.’

Southern Launch manages regulatory and logistics tasks for clients so they can focus on their launch. ‘Our customers really appreciate that,’ says Featherston. ‘We don't succeed unless they succeed.’


Technology Safeguards Agreement a game-changer

In October 2023, Australia and the US signed the Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA). The TSA provides a legal and technical framework to protect sensitive US space launch technology and data in Australia. Once in force, it will allow commercial US launch providers to launch rockets from Australian spaceports and return US space vehicles to Australian soil.

‘The TSA will change the game for us,’ says Featherston. ‘We will have access to the biggest market in the space industry. It’s also going to have incredible flow-on effects to other industries. We inject over $1,000,000 into the local economy just through contracting local suppliers – and we’re doing it in a regional area.’

A global hub for in-space manufacturing

Southern Launch hopes South Australia can become the global hub for in-space manufacturing. In-space manufacturing uses the vacuum and microgravity of space to help pharmaceutical companies improve drugs and create new ones.

US company Varda Space Industries is one of the first to manufacture pharmaceuticals in space. Southern Launch has signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Varda to return 3 of its space capsules to the Koonibba Test Range. The first of the 3 capsules will blast off aboard a SpaceX rocket and return to Earth in the middle of 2024.

Southern Launch has signed MoUs with other in-space manufacturing companies. In April 2024, the company also signed an MoU with US aerospace company SpaceWorks Enterprises to return its space transportation technology to the Koonibba Test Range.

‘We’re hoping the Koonibba Test Range becomes the anchor point for a circular space economy,’ says Featherston. ‘There are many opportunities for Australian space businesses to supply technology and services. Our pharmaceutical industry can also support the in-space pharmaceutical manufacturing industry.’

A galaxy of opportunities for the First Nations community

Southern Launch worked closely the Koonibba Community Aboriginal Corporation to develop the Koonibba Test Range. The ongoing partnership provides employment for community members and generates significant revenue through launch support, construction and tourism.

‘We lease the land on which the range is located, which provides income to the Corporation,’ says Featherston. ‘We also upskill and employ community members in roles that support every launch. These include traffic management, security, catering and maintenance.’

The First Nations community also plays a critical role on launches and returns.

‘Our flight safety team works with the Far West Coast Aboriginal Corporation to determine if a rocket will land in an area of cultural significance,’ says Featherston. ‘We will adjust the return point if it does. Community members also help us retrieve the rocket when it returns to the range.’

Southern Launch and the Koonibba Community Aboriginal Corporation will begin work on permanent space facilities after the Corporation received almost $4.5 million in funding from the Australian Government. The Corporation will also use a portion of the funds to develop an observatory on Koonibba lands to draw more tourists.

‘Working with Southern Launch in Koonibba is tremendous for our community,’ says Corey McLennan, CEO of Koonibba Community Aboriginal Corporation. ‘We benefit through employment opportunities and investment. Most importantly, our children and young people are inspired by the world of opportunities available to them when space is right on our doorstep.’

Austrade support sends Southern Launch into export orbit

Austrade has supported Southern Launch for several years. Austrade has invited the company to exhibit at the Team Australia stand at major space trade shows. ‘We have startup budgets and can’t afford to go to these shows without support,’ says Featherston.

‘Austrade’s representatives in key markets, particularly the US, have opened doors to and helped with initial discussions with customers. Austrade has also been incredible in supporting us to get international customers to Australia, whether it’s through helping with visas or logistics advice.

‘We wouldn’t be where we are today without Austrade’s support.’

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