Gilmour Space’s Eris rocket to ignite crowds at Abbot Point’s new Bowen Orbital Spaceport launch pad

Gilmour Space’s Eris rocket to ignite crowds at Abbot Point’s new Bowen Orbital Spaceport launch pad
  • PublishedApril 12, 2024

When brothers Adam and James Gilmour came up with a plan to build and launch the first Australian-made orbital rocket, people thought they were “crazy”.

Nearly a decade later, the pair are preparing to send a 23-metre rocket into low Earth orbit from a small north Queensland town.

“Everything we’ve done has been for the first time,” said Adam Gilmour, CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies.

“We’ve had to educate everybody from local government, state and federal about what it means to launch rockets from Australia.”

Their journey to blast Australia into the global space race has taken them from a Gold Coast factory to a warehouse nestled in mountainous bushland in Bowen, south of Townsville.

Two men stand in front of rocket in warehouse
James (left) and Adam Gilmour have been dreaming about space exploration since they were kids.(ABC North Queensland: Rachael Merritt)

A dream come true

Founded in 2013, Gilmour Space began with a small team of around a dozen people.

It now employs just under 200 engineers, manufacturers and technicians who have spent the past three years piecing together the 30,000-kilogram Eris rocket, costing more than $100 million.

“It is literally a dream come true. We used to play as kids and dream about what we might want to be when we grew up,” co-founder James Gilmour said.

“We essentially want to send mass to orbit, we want to be the FedEx or the TNT Express of space delivery.

“Some of the [satellite] capabilities we’re looking to launch can look at the effects of coral bleaching, deforestation or improve crop yields.”

Ready for lift off

For the first time, the rocket has successfully been lifted into a vertical position on the launch pad at the newly opened Bowen Orbital Spaceport at Abbot Point.

Its anticipated lift off will be attempted early next month once it has been granted final authorisation from the Australian Space Agency.

Four people sit behind computers at a long desk.
A demountable mission control has been established near the launch site. (ABC North Queensland: Rachael Merritt)

An agency spokesperson said the assessment process “remains in work”.

“Gilmour is working closely with the Office of the Space Regulator to ensure the launch meets the requirements.”

On launch day, more than a dozen flight controllers will file into a small demountable mission control on the outskirts of the exclusion zone to begin the countdown.

The unmanned rocket will pass over the Coral Sea before entering low orbit, a trip that is expected to take eight minutes.

Rocket sits in warehouse on the back of small motorised vehicle.
Eris in a north Queensland warehouse ahead of its anticipated launch next month.(ABC North Queensland: Rachael Merritt)

But Adam Gilmour said it was highly unlikely their initial attempt would make it that far.

“The first attempts at launches, they’ve always failed, so history is not on our side and we do expect something will go wrong.

“Our technology is quite benign in terms of explosive potential, but there’s still a risk whenever you’ve got a lot of pressure in a tank. If it explodes, things fly out a long way.”

A coastal community in the spotlight

While countries such as the United Kingdom have used remote Australian sites to test their own rocket programs since the late 1950s, the choice to launch in north Queensland has geographic significance.

“Launching close to the equator is a big advantage,” said Michael Heitzmann, an associate professor in the School of Mechanical and Mining Engineering at the University of Queensland.

“You can use the energy from the Earth’s rotation so that you don’t have to use extra fuel.

“It’s preferential to have areas that are sparsely populated towards the east so launching over the ocean or launching in unoccupied land is really important.”

Man sits behind computer and looks at map on screen.
Adam Gilmour inspects the rocket’s predicted flight path over the Coral Sea.(ABC North Queensland: Rachael Merritt)

While the first launch would mark a “pinnacle” in Australian space exploration, Dr Heitzmann said the growing demand to launch satellites meant Gilmour Space had the potential to become a global contender.

“I cannot see why you wouldn’t see companies like SpaceX or NASA coming to Australia to launch some of their rockets,” he said.

Rocketing tourism

With a population of around 10,000 people, the coastal town of Bowen is better known as the gateway to the world famous Whitsundays and the backdrop to Baz Luhrmann’s film Australia.

Mayor Ry Collins said he hoped establishing a permanent base for rocket launches would be a further drawcard for tourists.

View of Bowen from lookout spot.
Space enthusiasts are expected to flock to lookout sites in Bowen to witness the launch.(ABC North Queensland: Rachael Merritt)

“We see from around the world that visitors flocked to areas, particularly in the United States, to see satellite and rocket launches,” Mr Collins said.

“I think that’s something we can really put our flag in the sand for and be known for something that we do quite differently here in the north.”

A second launch was anticipated later this year, and once Gilmour Space had succeeded in reaching orbit, James Gilmour said they would look at manufacturing a rocket capable of carrying humans.

“I’d like to prove there are employment opportunities, particularly for Queenslanders, to come and join the space race in their backyard,” he said.


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