Australia re-enters the space race

South Australia’s west coast will roar with the sound of rocket launches this week, as start-up Southern Launch begins its test program with two sub-orbital rockets.

It will be a significant moment for Australia’s space industry – the next chapter in a history of rocket launches extending over six decades. It’s also the first tests by Southern Launch, a private company founded in 2017 to establish a site in South Australia for orbital rocket launches.

The launch will take place near the Indigenous community of Koonibba, around 8 hours drive from Adelaide, where Southern Launch has established a testing range. Launching northwards, each rocket will be a Netherlands-designed 2-stage DART about 3.4 metres long and weighing 34 kilograms. In just 6 seconds of rocket burn they will scream to speeds of Mach 5. The test rockets won’t reach orbit, however, peaking around 85km above Earth.

They will be carrying a payload though – a miniature probe designed and built by DEWC Systems, an Australian electronic warfare engineering company. After reaching apogee, DEWC-SP1, as the payload has been dubbed, will descend to Earth under parachute. As it comes down, the package of antennas and sensors will perform a sensing mission, as well as being a test of withstanding the 50g of force during launch.

Once landed, the payload will be collected by DEWC Systems crew escorted by a local Aboriginal cultural monitor.

200914 southern launch test launch apparatus and model of dart credit southern launch
Southern Launch apparatus and model of DART. Credit: Southern Launch

“This event is more than just Australia’s first launch, but a testament to Australian companies coming together with our international partners to push the boundaries of the conceivable and inspire future generations to be spacefarers,” says Southern Launch CEO Lloyd Damp.

“The ability to launch satellites from Australia will be a return to a past capability, that has big implications for our future,” says Swinburne University astronomer Alan Duffy.

“We can decide when and where to launch as a nation, allowing us to quickly respond and service a global space industry worth US$600bn by 2030. Our space industry is growing at a startling rate, and launching rockets is a small, but crucial, part of the industry.”

The launch window opens on Monday 14 September, through to Sunday 20 September. During the window there are two launches planned. Should weather prevent them from going ahead, there is a backup launch window a week later.

A company spokesperson told Cosmos the launches will be livestreamed on Southern Launch’s social media accounts.

200914 southern launch test dart test profile credit southern launch
The DART test profile. Credit: Southern Launch

Engaging with Indigenous community vital

The land for the test is leased from the Koonibba Community Aboriginal Corporation, however the partnership between Southern Launch and the local community goes beyond the lease and cultural monitors.

Southern Launch is working with the Koonibba community to provide opportunities for them to contribute to the project, the company says, having actively worked with local Indigenous people throughout the whole project. The front section of the DART rocket will feature artwork created by local community members as recognition of the partnership.

“Our people continue to have a strong connection with the land, the sea and the sky, so with Southern Launch developing a rocket test range on our lands, we are excited to develop a partnership role in developing Australia’s space future,” says Koonibba Community Aboriginal Corporation CEO Corey McLennan.

“Working closely with local Indigenous groups is crucial for the space sector as they often own the remote, isolated sites which are critical to safely launching rockets,” says Duffy.

“But more than that we want the exciting opportunities of space to be accessible to all Australians, and having that connection to the projects underway will inspire and provide access to the local groups to join that growing space workforce.”

Continuing a history of Australian rockets

This is far from the first rocket launch in Australia, or even South Australia. During the 1950s and 1960s Woomera played host to launches by the United Kingdom and European Launcher Development Organisation (a precursor to ESA), and for a time was the second busiest rocket range in the world.

Then, in 1967 Australia became just the third nation to design and deploy its own orbital satellite, with the launch of WRESAT. Finally, in 1971, the United Kingdom launched the Prospero satellite into low-earth orbit from Woomera – the most recent time a satellite was launched from Australia.

However, that should soon change, with Southern Launch and Equatorial Launch Australia both pushing ahead with establishing launch facilities. Additionally, Queensland company Gilmour Space expect to begin launching their Eris rocket in 2022.

Ultimately Southern Launch plan to establish a launch complex at Whalers Way, near the South Australian town of Port Lincoln. From this southerly point Southern Launch can offer sun-synchronous or polar orbital launches.

“In these types of orbits, a satellite passes over the same part of the Earth with the Sun in the same position, allowing for the same illumination of the ground,” says Duffy.

“That makes it easy to see features on the ground change over time, such as the growth (or loss!) of forests or fluctuations in water bodies all without having to worry about changing shadows or other complications that a different alignment of satellite-Earth-Sun can bring.

“The ability to deliver that service, be able to launch over a sea where there’s no risk of hitting populated areas, and in an area that doesn’t see hurricanes or extreme weather, is a global opportunity for Australia.”

Alan Duffy is Lead Scientist of the Royal Institution of Australia.

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