South Australian kids to send projects to space or navigating the Wild Wild West of space law — there’s no shortage of out of this world work coming out of a Brompton warehouse, as Sophie Perri discovers on the eve of the International Astronautical Congress, in Adelaide from September 25—29.
AWAY from the hipster pubs and cafes of Brompton, on a side street called Wood Ave, is a brick warehouse with a rolled-up garage door.
There’s nothing out of the ordinary about this.
Nothing out of the ordinary about the coloured Post-It notes on the wall, or the old chairs, or the small office window.
Nothing out of the ordinary about the handful of workers inside, shuffling about in old T-shirts and sneakers.
But this place isn’t ordinary.
One only needs to fix their gaze on the two vacuum chambers, two shiny silver hunks of German engineering worth the median price of a house in Adelaide, to figure that out.
So what’s happening in here?
“The short answer is, it is rocket science,” says Dr Paddy Neumann, the bearded fellow behind this space start-up bearing his name.
This is Neumann Space. Here, Neumann and his team are working on an ion thruster that converts space junk into fuel. Right now, these vacuum chambers are making plasma (put simple, rocket exhaust) from copper.
“If it’s solid and conductive, we can use it as fuel,” the aerospace engineer says.
“As part of my thesis I tested aluminium, titanium and magnesium — these three metals are called the aerospace metals because they’re light and strong, so you build spacecraft out of them. Therefore space junk is made out of them, so we can recycle them.”
In 2019, Neumann Space will partner with aeronautics company Airbus to test the technology on a mission to the International Space Station.
“The T-shirt slogan is, ‘Mars and back on a tank of fuel,’” Neumann says, now standing between the chambers.
“We can send a robotic spacecraft to Mars, orbit, do stuff there, take measurements, pick up a rock or two from one of the tiny moons of Mars, and bring it back to Earth without needing to refuel … nothing else can do that.”
Neumann, who graduated with a Bachelor of Aerospace Engineering (Honours) and a Bachelor of Science specialising in physics in 2006, is originally from Sydney.
He moved his start-up to Adelaide late last year for “numerous reasons”.
“First of all, there’s aerospace manufacturing already present in Adelaide and it’s where Australian new space (start-ups) are starting to cluster,” he says.
“Adelaide is very supportive of novel industries being formed, there’s a large amount of industrial and commercial space becoming available which leads to ‘my God, the rent is so much cheaper’. This space we have here is costing one quarter as much as an equivalent space in an equivalent area in Sydney would cost.
“We’d be foolish to be staying in Sydney when we can get so much more for our money in Adelaide.”
Today is busy. Every day is, really, but this week is particularly manic in the lead-up to the International Astronautical Congress. From September 25-29, the heavyweights of the international space industry will converge at the Adelaide Convention Centre for the major industry conference, which was last in Australia — in Melbourne — in 1998.