Australian space startup Fleet will have its first satellites in orbit within weeks after teaming up with Kiwi venture Rocket Labs

Rocket Lab’s Mission Control is online in Auckland. Picture: Getty Images

  • Australian space startup Fleet Space Technologies is locked in for a first launch
  • Satellites will be main payload on November launch for New Zealand’s Rocket Lab
  • Fleet CEO says it will have taken just two months to plan, build and launch the satellites

After waiting three years to launch its first satellites, Australian space startup Fleet Space Technologies has beaten itself to the punch.

A month ago, it developed two new satellites, and jumped on board the next launch by New Zealand’s Rocket Lab, scheduled for November.

“We booked with them literally last month, and we’re going to be in space next month,” Fleet Chief Executive, Flavia Tata Nardini, told Business Insider.

The two new nanosatellites, Proxima I and II, are identical 1.5 U CubeSats designed and built by Fleet. The satellites will test Fleet’s new software-defined radios and ultimately, form the beginning of a constellation of more than 100 nanosatellites that will act as a dedicated Internet of Things (IoT) space network for enterprises across the world.

Just a couple of months ago, that honour was supposed to go to Centauri I and II, satellites which have been in development for several years. To enable that, in July, Australia’s new space agency gave Fleet an Overseas Launch Certificate (OLC) under the Australian Space Activities Act.

But since then, Rocket Lab announced a mission called “It’s Business Time”, to be launched from its Complex-1 on New Zealand’s Māhia Peninsula.

Fleet’s Proxima satellites will be launched inside Rocket Lab’s in-house designed and built Maxwell dispenser, joining two Spire Global Lemur-2 satellites, the Irvine CubeSat STEM Program CubeSat, NABEO, and a drag sail technology demonstrator satellite, built by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems.

Nardini said the Rocket Lab development was a game-changer.

“Australia and New Zealand, two companies, and we can get to space in a couple of months,” she said. “That’s what Rocket Lab and Fleet are talking about now.

“I think it’s unbelievable and I’m super proud of it. This is going to accelerate the business in an amazing way that I was not even expecting.”

Fleet CEO Flavia Tatia Nardini. Picture: Supplied

Rocket Lab Chief Executive, Peter Beck, called Fleet Space Technologies “one of the key leaders in Australia’s emerging commercial space industry” and said he was “thrilled to add Fleet’s Proxima satellites to the It’s Business Time manifest”.

Beck’s company helped New Zealand become the 11th country to launch satellites into space in January when it launched three satellites from its launch pad on North Island.

And in July, the Australian Space Agency finally came into being, the second crucial part to the puzzle that has enabled Fleet to join the nano space race.

Nardini said the ASA “were amazing” and had been working around the clock for Fleet.

“This is huge – a new space industry in a couple of months? This is fascinating,” she said.

“So when you look at Fleet and say when’s 100 satellites going to happen, it’s now going to happen fast.”

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has licensed Fleet to perform satellite telemetry, tracking, and command, and payload data reception. When they’re in orbit, Proxima I and II will also allow Fleet to test longwave and shortwave band frequencies.

Fleet’s larger Centauri satellites are set to be launched aboard other ISRO and SpaceX rockets in late 2018.

When combined with its ground terminal, the Portal, Fleet’s constellation will enable businesses to connect up to a thousand devices to private, secure networks anywhere around the world, at what it claims will be “a fraction of the cost of traditional satellite systems”.

Nardini said the most important difference between the Rocket Lab and other launches was not the price, but the speed.

“In startup world, it’s like running on a high-speed train. You’ve got a short time to demonstrate your capability to the customer market; you cannot wait one year for a rocket launch,” she said.

“And so the capability to go to space for a fair price, that is not the key.”

Fleet’s Proxima satellite. Picture: Supplied

Nardini does, however, agree that price could become a more important as more startups get into nanosats and competition for launch pad and payload spots heats up. Nanosats can be built a lot faster than rockets and launch pads.

But, she said, “the key is that the more we launch, the better the price we get”.

“I think we are in a little bit of a chicken and the egg kind of position – they are quite connected.

“A lot of startups, if they have to wait many, many years to get their payload to space then they cannot capital raise. They cannot get customers. So they hold this massive ambition about deploying constellations but they don’t get the chance. That leads to, do rockets have enough customers?

“So if we can manage more launches and allow people to get into space, then the market will decide who are good and who are not.”

“The key here is how fast can companies move?”

Even just three years ago, when Fleet was starting out, Nardini never thought a two-month window for development to launch would be possible.

“Now all this is going to happen, you start to reassess everything,” she said. “Fleet has got a plan of this constellation where a lot of people see the number and think ‘It’s never going to happen’ but if we have the ability to do that inside that couple of months…

“If you have a provider like that and that provider is going to space every month, the rocket launch is not a problem any more. You can book it any time.

“What they are doing in New Zealand is one of the most exciting things I have seen in the space industry.”

Nardini will travel to New Zealand to witness the launch first-hand. Although that’s not guaranteed – Rocket Lab has had a couple of misfires recently.

In late June, a Rocket Lab Electron booster with five US and German-built nanosatellites didn’t budge after a motor controller on the two-stage launcher failed:

But it’s still moving ahead in leaps and bounds. This month, Rocket Lab signed a deal to also launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, USA, and opened a new manufacturing facility and mission control centre in Auckland.

It was a big enough occasion for this famous captain to address the crowd:

To infinity and beyond! Picture: Getty Images

And if all goes to plan, Nardini will be the first private customer to witness a launch of their own rocket from inside it.

“You bet,” Nardini said. “I spoke to Peter Beck and he said ‘You know, you are the first client who can actually come and watch a launch, because you are so close’.

“These are little details but being so close, it really helps us.

“It’s going to be amazing, I really can’t wait.”