Above the clouds

Black Sky Aerospace

In 2022, Black Sky Aerospace will launch the first locally manufactured and designed rocket into space from Australian soil. Billy Friend speaks with CEO Blake Nikolic about how the veteran-led company is breaking boundaries to facilitate sovereign capability in space and defence. 

Blake Nikolic grew his passion for explosives when he was a young boy, talking to his father about the possibilities of innovation and technology. His intrigue with space exploration was also transferred from his father, who taught maths and science for 37 years. 

Instead of going to university, Nikolic immediately joined the workforce in IT and explosives. Since he was a teenager, he helped to orchestrate the choreography on many large-scale pyrotechnic displays around the world, as well as locally for events like the Riverfire festival in Brisbane and fireworks in Sydney Harbour. 

Soon after, his career took a turn when he joined the Australian Army to become a pilot. Today, Nikolic heads a privately-owned, veteran-run Australian company called Black Sky Aerospace (BSA), which has culminated from these past experiences: a love of explosions, aviation and service to his country. 

“We are the definition of Australian Industry Capability,” he said. “COVID-19 brought up logistical nightmares and heaped pressure on supply chains, which boosted BSA as an entity for why it exists. We aren’t beholden to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), creating a true capability that isn’t locked down to foreign influence. We love working with our foreign partners, but we ultimately have the decision to support Australian industry.”

BSA was founded in April 2018, just months before the launch of the Australian Space Agency. The inspiration behind the cutting-edge rocket company was when Nikolic saw a gap in the exponentially growing space market within the largest land mass in the Southern Hemisphere; Australia. 

“BSA was created primarily to provide a conduit to space through sub-orbital (or return-to-earth) launches for scientific and medical research, test and evaluation opportunities for on-orbit assets, and radar calibration and targeting for Defence platforms. BSA’s technology is ‘dual use’, fulfilling Space and Defence capabilities,” he explained.  

BSA technician Christian Maher engineering rocket components at the factory in Southeast Queensland.

To an extent, Australia hasn’t needed to manufacture solid state rockets or the fuel, happy to let other nations make the big investment and take risks. After establishing the space agency in 2018, the government is again driving sovereign capability, especially after seeing the vulnerability of supply chains in the last few years. 

BSA has a wide range of capabilities. Firstly, there is propulsion. BSA manufactures solid rocket fuel, solid rocket motors, common tactical boosters and common use boosters. 

“We manufacture the propellant and precursor materials for defence and space applications such as guided weapons, ancillary boosters, sounding rockets and off-Earth rocket motors. We also launch rockets, have our own launch sites, and provide payload delivery systems. What we produce can be used in space and defence activities, research and development, and multiple other applications.”

For specific energetics requirements, BSA has the in-house capability to develop custom formulas to meet particular characteristics. The experts can manufacture propellant on a build-to-print model under license, and provide unlabelled products for customer rebranding and use. 

“We have a first mover advantage in solid rocket propulsion. I’ve been around rockets and technology since I was a boy, so it’s in my blood. And when we started BSA we were ahead of the establishment of the Australian Space Agency by some months, and the Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance Enterprise by several years. That means we are well placed to provide services as those entities and nascent sovereign industries gain momentum.”

Since BSA was founded four years ago, Australia’s space ecosystem is growing. Part of the company’s progress involves helping grow Australia’s space industry – providing access to launch sites, airspace and flights, often for low or no cost to the start-up world. 

“There’s still a lot of maturing that has to happen and it will come,” Nikolic said. “Blacky Sky is the tide that floats all boats, which is something we really pride ourselves on. Anyone who’s working on rockets, either has or is a customer of ours in some capacity. If we don’t help these companies succeed, or at least get a foot-up, then we don’t actually have an ecosystem to work with.”

Growing the industry from a technology standpoint is not the only focus for Nikolic and his team.

“We are frontrunners in how regulation engages with industry – how we help shape different licencing and different rules to ensure that there is a viable industry in this country.”

At its inception, BSA had an 80 per cent focus on space, compared to defence. Since then, the space industry in Australia continues to go through a maturation phase that encompasses both industry and regulatory stakeholders. In uncertain times through the pandemic and with a change in geo-political environments, BSA’s core focus shifted heavily to Defence and in recent times has been heavily shaped to support the Australian Government’s Sovereign Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance Enterprise (GWEO).

Of course, Nikolic’s team has had to expand as well. BSA started with a heavy focus on technology to prove minimum viable products (MVP) and within eight months, delivered a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 9 product through the launch of Australia’s first commercial payloads on 21 November, 2018. Privately owned, it was important to ensure that overheads were minimised in the first couple of years, and delivery of proven capability would be critical to the longevity of the company.

By the last quarter of the 2021/22 financial year, BSA had grown to 18 FTE with dedicated teams in Avionics, Engineering, Manufacturing and Propulsion.

Nikolic doesn’t echo the sentiment that there isn’t enough skills in the Australian workforce to keep up with international innovation and technology. BSA finds chemical engineers, process engineers and other staff from similar industries like mining and oil and gas and then converts their skill sets to the world of space and defence. It’s clear that the people behind BSA hold a certain mentality when approaching projects.

“A lot of this comes down to Aussie ingenuity,” he said. “It’s a mentality. You’re often told you can’t do something or it won’t work. It’s about finding the limits and being able to push them safely and securely.”

Nikolic pointed to the invention of penicillin and wireless internet as examples of Australia’s track-record with ground-breaking innovation.

“We just come at it from a different approach. People say to think outside the box, but once you understand there isn’t a box, you can understand there are different ways of doing things, which is how we are creating such modern capability that the world traditionally has not seen.”

An example of BSA’s ahead of the curve approach is when it created its composite rocket motor hardware. 

“We did that with off the shelf materials, which creates a system that’s around 40 per cent lighter and between 80-90 per cent cheaper. We’ve had composite experts look at that and not understand how it works, because by all accounts, it shouldn’t. When they ask how does it work, I say “very well” – and that is the point of the developing this unique IP, but you have to think differently.”

BSA engineer Bryan Greenham carefully inspects rocket motor hardware post firing to ensure quality and compliance.

Space

BSA is headquartered in Logan, Queensland and has operations across the entire southern end of the state. Static testing and low altitude launches are done not far from its Logan site, higher altitude but below space launches near Goondiwindi. High altitude space launches and guided weapon testing are in Bulloo, which is the largest private launch range in the world, boasting more than three million acres of land.

All of BSA’s launches provide critical data that is collated and evaluated for continual development. In November, it successfully launched the first Australian designed and built rocket in over 40 years. The event was the third in a series of test and evaluation launches. 

“The November launch’s primary mission was for a customer on board that had hardware and software being developed for secure satellite communications. This launch provided a platform for rapid test and evaluation, all whilst increasing the TRL with a successful operation,” Nikolic noted.

“BSA was also able to demonstrate another successful flight with a customer onboard providing confidence to stakeholders including the Australian Space Agency, which is required to authorise space launches for Australian launch providers.”

Nikolic has worked closely with Equatorial Launch Australia for over five years, assisting with the NASA Sounding Rocket Program that has progressed with site infrastructure at the Arnhem Space Centre (ASC) development since last year. 

“Working closely with the traditional owners, the Gumatj Corporation, BSA demonstrated launch capabilities in Queensland in 2018 and has been developing rockets to fly from many sites including the Arnhem Space Centre,” he said. “Whilst ASC will see many providers in the future, it is a defining moment for Australia that BSA is recognised alongside NASA as the only other provider with priority access to the site.”

Never satisfied, BSA is reaching new heights this year, both literally and figuratively. The company is on track to launch the first Australian designed and manufactured rocket into space from Australian soil. The history-making project doesn’t have an exact date yet, but has been a long-term goal for Nikolic. 

“It’s been a goal since our inception. It has matured very rapidly in the scheme of rocket technology. We have been challenged by COVID-9 slowing things down and the newly formed regulations for the space agencies have presented different challenges to overcome,” he began.

“However, we have been working on this for quite a while and the challenges have only slightly extended the date. What’s actually happened as a result of the project is more technology for onshoring and more in house manufacturing leading to development entirely of our own systems across the board. That means not just making a rocket motor or an airframe, but inhouse and onshoring of avionics manufacturing, onshoring of all the different elements or components of the system that we can do.”

When Nikolic started BSA, around 30 per cent of its components were manufactured inhouse, but now the company makes 90 per cent of the materials. While space is and always will be an integral part of BSA’s DNA, the company has recently pivoted to more defence work because of limitations on what it can provide to a nascent Australian space market. 

“We’re doing everything we can to remain Australian,” Nikolic said. “It would be quite easy to jump ship and go overseas, and then we lose all of that sovereign capability. But it would be at the at the benefit of making money and at the expense of losing Sovereign capability.”

BSA engineer Elliott Williams inspects a grain of solid rocket propellant ready for launch.

Defence

Anytime BSA develops a propulsion system or other technology, it can be used in both defence, space or civilian space applications. A Collaborative Research Agreement (CRA) with the Defence, Science and Technology Group helps ensure the quality of energetics that BSA manufactures is refined to meet the sensitive requirements of Defence and Space, with the manufacturer embarking on technology developments to support the next generation of guided weapons. 

“Missile manufacturers have mostly worked on traditional systems that have existed for many decades,” Nikolic added. “Qualification of new platforms can be challenging and costly, whereas BSA can deliver new systems with modern technology and techniques.”

The missile system BSA is designing and building is for Australia, but can also be provided for export. Nikolic said the team has the advantage of seeing what is working and using that as a start-point, with innovations to bring new elements to the fight. 

“There is no hiding that the technical challenges are complex and the science needs to be perfected to create guided weapons that perform with precision,” he explained. “Australians have been the innovators for many technical advancements and has the skillsets and capabilities to deliver turnkey solutions required for Guided Weapons. BSA has partnered with some of the most advanced manufacturers in Australia, including Laser Central and Hemco Industries for specialised components, and more recently, Crystalaid, which produces complex electronics for global Primes and the circuitry in BSA’s guided weapons.”

Last year, leaders from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced an enhanced trilateral security partnership called AUKUS – the idea to join forces to deepen diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

Industry accelerating Australia’s missile capability can not only help the implementation of the AUKUS agreement, it can lead the way. 

“It’s all about sovereign capability for us,” Nikolic reiterated. “We are an Aussie veteran-owned business, and we care about our national security. We keep being told that our security situation has deteriorated; well we are stepping up to help the best way we know how. We can keep importing what we need, with all the sovereignty and supply chain risks that entails, or we can get off our backsides and help build the local solution.” 

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