Australia’s space future blasts off from Nhulunbuy

Australia has taken another step towards becoming a serious contributor to the global space economy with the launch of a NASA sounding rocket from the Arnhem Space Center at Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory. Australia’s rapidly growing space enterprise will provide benefits well above our economic and strategic weight. Establishing a sovereign launch capability is a vital early step.

The launch site’s developer, Equatorial Launch Australia, wants to make Nhulunbuy a premier global launch site. Despite unexpected rain and wind forcing holds in the countdown, the rocket carried a science payload up to 350 kilometres before bringing it back to earth. The science points to a fascinating future, especially given the possible discovery of an earth-sized exoplanet orbiting Alpha Centauri, a star more than four light years away, that could be habitable.

The space policy implications for the NT and for Australia are equally important.

At a national level, launch services are quickly emerging as a strategic asset in Australia. They need to be developed as networked infrastructure reflecting global demands from both commercial and military customers while optimising opportunities for Australia’s space industry.

The 26 June launch also provides a starting point for the territory’s space economy. Nhulunbuy’s location—only 12° south of the equator—is key to its importance. Any rocket launched from, or close to, the equator gains an energy advantage from the earth’s rotation that translates into lower cost per kilogram of payload. The European Space Agency’s Kourou in French Guiana is the only other major launch site as close to the equator as Nhulunbuy.

The space centre gives Australia the potential to develop a similar space launch facility to Kourou that will not just launch sounding rockets but deliver significant payloads into a full range of orbits, including the important equatorial low-earth orbit. This region is between 15° south and north of the equator and will be crucial for supporting the needs of Southeast Asian and South Pacific states and rapidly developing economies in Africa and South America.

As I noted in a previous post, Nhulunbuy can launch space-based surveillance satellites to monitor our maritime approaches. Over time, these would be regularly updated with more modern satellites and, in a crisis, augmented or reconstituted if lost to hostile actions in orbit. For defence purposes alone, maintaining an ability to launch satellites close to the equator provides a key advantage complementing Australia’s ability to launch surveillance satellites into polar and sun-synchronous orbit from the Whaler’s Way launch site near Port Lincoln in South Australia. A third site being established at Bowen in Queensland will add additional capacity. Gilmour Space Technology is likely to launch its first Eris booster from there in the next year or two. Seeing these launch sites as a collective strategic asset—rather than competitive locations—is vital. It’s hoped that the space strategic update now being prepared will deliver an appropriate cooperative approach.

Greater space access fits well with nations’ likely future requirement for mega-constellations comprising thousands of small satellites, mostly in low-earth orbit, providing commercial broadband services and earth observation systems. The potential for ‘broadband in the sky’ is already being established with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network, but expanding mega-constellations is likely given the ever-rising demand for bandwidth in an information society. It’s not just about a new way of internet access. Mega-constellations will support a growing ‘internet of things’, including autonomous technologies, robots and even driverless vehicles in coming decades.

The Nhulunbuy launch site is a key element for the territory government in developing an ecosystem that could not only transform Australia’s use of space for defence and national security, but also facilitate an expansion of information technology to drive economic development and societal transformation. Like Whaler’s Way in South Australia and Bowen in Queensland, Nhulunbuy lends itself to supporting the space launch needs of partners and allies across the globe. A vibrant commercial space sector developing satellites, launch vehicles and launch sites, combined with terrestrial applications for space services to 21st century economies and defence requirements, must be a centerpiece of Australia’s development path.

For the NT government, Nhulunbuy and Equatorial Launch Australia, a growing space launch capability from a geographically ideal location in the north should be seen as a critical national capability. The demand for launches is only going to increase, driven by the need for mega-constellations and the potential to support commercial space activities in orbit, and to the moon and beyond.

The potential offered by new technologies such as reusable rocket systems means regular launches of even large boosters become possible, especially since costs can be cut through booster returns to launch sites. Expanding the infrastructure to accommodate larger boosters, including partly or fully reusable rockets, opens dramatic new possibilities for Nhulunbuy and for the NT to support national and allied space operations with a rapid flight tempo.

Such a vision demands more than just a launch site at Nhulunbuy. Certainly, expanding the site to accommodate orbital-class rockets and reusable launch vehicles is an obvious step, but investing in co-located upstream industries for small satellite manufacturing, payload integration, range safety and many other supporting activities would contribute towards a space coast in the north to complement a similar development near Whaler’s Way and at Bowen. Investing in space-related commercial activity in Darwin to support an expanding schedule of launches from Nhulunbuy, including through new approaches to space industry, makes great sense rather than keeping such activities distant.

This week’s launch from Nhulunbuy and upcoming launches in July point the way to a more ambitious space outlook for Australia. Sovereign space launch is crucial to Australia’s future and launching that first rocket from Nhulunbuy was a giant leap for Australia as a rising space power.