At some point over the last fortnight, watching the second launch countdown in as many weeks via YouTube livestream, it became clear the Second Space Age - as promised by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson - had become entirely real. The promised land of cheap(er) commercial payload launches has come to pass.
Even if it looked effortless, none of it came easily. We’ve seen a fair share of rocket-go-explodey over the last few years, with only the most notorious example being the SpaceX malfunction that took out Zuck’s African satellite. Rocket science remains precisely that: trying to get something to explode in just the right way remains among the most difficult tasks. Even the Russians - who have been at this longer than anyone - still use the same rocket engines they developed in the 1960s. If it ain’t broke ...
While tech and media billionaires burn through their fortunes launching tons into low Earth orbits, at the other end of the scale (get it?), things are cheap, fast, and rapidly getting completely out of control. The ‘cubesat’ - a one kilogram package that measures 10cm (4 inches) a side, has become the go-to for anyone who can raise the relatively modest $80,000 to blast it into orbit.
Just a decade ago, that very modest cubesat volume (one litre, for those doing their maths) wouldn’t have meant very much. But now, ten years after iPhone, quite a lot of cheap custom kit can be packed into a cubesat. Like so much other digital gear, the cubesat now looks like a rearranged smartphone, with cheap sensors and cheap radios and cheap enough computing that even when it gets hit by a stray cosmic ray - and it will - they can always just power up a backup circuit, or simply launch a replacement.
Communications satellites - the big boys that beam voice and video traffic around the planet - still cost hundreds of millions of dollars. I’d wager that the majority of cubesats will soon cost a millionth of that, using orbital flavours of Raspberry Pi.
Building the cubesat isn’t hard. Getting it to orbit - that’s the tricky bit. Right now they have to hitch rides with the big boys, often waiting years for a flight that meets their requirements. Sensing an opportunity, an army of would-be rocketeers have startups looking to launch cubesats inexpensively - and on demand.
Again, that’s more difficult than it sounds. Small rockets with cubesat payloads might be more ‘disposable’ - cheap enough that if you lose some along the way (boom!), it’s no great loss - but that’s the only half the problem: Once you have a rocket, you need somewhere to launch it.
Physics prefers equatorial rocket launches - the Earth’s spin providing an extra 1670 kph of speed at the equator - so the European Space Agency launches from French Guiana, the US from Cape Canaveral, and the Russians from Baikonur - which these days is in neighbouring Kazakhstan, and is as close to the equator as the Russians can comfortably stretch.
Meanwhile, Australia's northemost city Darwin, best known for salt water crocodiles and snakes in the aircon, sits just 12˚ south of the Equator. And in a tectonically and politically stable location that, as it happens, currently welcomes big investment.
In the last decade Australia's received tens of billions in investments from the mining sector, which had to figure out how to dig up more of Australia so that China could turn it into infrastructure. Darwin also got an increased US military presence, and with it all the lovely expertise required to support big machines.
But it was mining that really put a rocket under the northern Australian economy and the nation feels a bit economically bereft since it cooled off.
Which gets me thinking about Darwin's fortunate conjunction of location, expertise, plus Australia's imminent review of its reviewing its Space Activities Act.
The timing could not be better. As the USA withdraws behind its own borders, spurning foreign researchers and innovators, it becomes more difficult and less interesting to space pioneers. These next four years could prove a watershed, if Australia and other happily-located nations rise up to catch all the business America leaves on the table.
That’s much more than just rocket launches. Those rockets need to be fuelled, maintained, need custom avionics and mechanical bits, will have to be tracked and programmed - in short, every rocket needs a highly technical nation behind it, ready to service its need both before and after launch.
It’s the sort of thing that could jumpstart the moribund, mining-addicted economy of the ‘Top End’ of Australia. It presents the kinds of ribbon-cutting opportunities that politicians love. It gives school kids something to aspire to. And it gives their parents something to watch on YouTube.
Australia may be the bottom of both a gravity well and the world, but some of us down here are looking to the stars. ®