4 mins read 28 Feb 2022

Southern Launch sponsors raptor and emu-wren research

Australian aerospace company Southern Launch is supporting research into two bird species endemic to Whalers Way, the site of their new launch complex.

Flinders University Professor Sonia Kleindorfer and Dr Diane Colombelli-Négrel will be studying the environmental impact of the Whalers Way launch facility. Credit: Southern Launch.

Adelaide-based space company Southern Launch has announced $180,000 in support for a new research project by Flinders University, which will study two bird species endemic to Whalers Way on the southern tip of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia.

To appreciate the significance of this new partnership, it is useful to look back at the story of the Whalers Way site thus far.

The Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex site was approved on the 17th of June 2021 for a test launch campaign. The construction of the test launch site is one example of the interplay between environmental preservation and the advancement of technology. When it was proposed as a new launch site last year, it sparked concern among conservationists and traditional owners.

Reassuringly, there were some strict conditions that Southern Launch had agreed to follow during the construction of the site. The infrastructure was not allowed to permanently change the land use or result in any permanent structures on the site. The launchpad would not result in any native vegetation removal. Furthermore, the purpose of the test launch site itself was to measure the environmental impact of future launches and test the viability of a full-scale launch complex.

Now, Southern Launch is stepping up to ensure its space activities leave even lighter footprints on the historically and culturally important site. 

Supporting local native bird research

Credit: Southern Launch.

Credit: Southern Launch.

The southern emu-wren and the nankeen kestrel, one of Australia’s smallest falcons, are both endangered species that can be found in this region, about 32km from Port Lincoln. As well as being home to a diverse range of birdlife, Whalers Way is a popular coastal tourist destination of cliffs, blowholes, caves and beaches.

The collaboration between Southern Launch and Flinders University will involve two PhD students from the College of Science and Engineering, Taylor Headland and Julian Behrens. They will conduct monitoring of the kestrel and the southern emu-wren over a three year period, studying their behaviour, population numbers and breeding success. 

They will be supervised by world avian ecology authorities Flinders University Professor Sonia Kleindorfer and Dr Diane Colombelli-Négrel, as well as a number of other international experts in Europe and Australia. For example, raptor specialists from Austria, Dr Petra Sumasgutner and Dr Shane McPherson will advise on the use of GPS tracking and tagging of the kestrels in South Australia. The data and conclusions from these studies will inform future conservation efforts at a time when global biodiversity loss is more concerning than ever. 

“The emu-wren project will help update the conservation status of the species and gain a better understanding of potential reproductive isolation barriers between the subspecies,” says Professor Kleindorfer, who has more than 30 years’ experience in native bird conservation and ecology and is affiliated with the University of Vienna in Austria. 

 “We are excited to be involved in studying the behaviour of the different subspecies of emu-wrens found in South Australia,” says Dr Colombelli-Négrel, principal investigator of Flinders University’s BirdLab research group. BirdLab conducts studies on avian species in fragile ecosystems all over the world, including Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Galapagos Islands.

“Importantly, the researchers will not be trapping, tagging or harming these southern emu-wrens,” she explains. Additionally, she notes that the specific choice of the nankeen kestrel is important, stating that it is a “bio-indicator of the other raptor species in general.”

Working with land and community

The site at Whalers Way, on the tip of the Southern Eyre Peninsula approximately 32 km from Port Lincoln. Credit: Southern Launch.

Southern Launch already has a positive track record of good stewardship of the land on which the company operates. In September 2020, the company collaborated with the local Aboriginal community in Koonibba to launch a small payload from Koonibba Test Range.

Regarding this new ecological project, Southern Launch CEO Lloyd Damp says that “This sponsorship is one of the many ways Southern Launch will be actively supporting the natural fauna and fauna of Whalers Way.” 

As another promising example of interdisciplinary partnership, it is Lloyd’s hope that the company can become a role model for other rocket companies that are working towards setting up facilities on Australian soil: “Southern Launch aspires to be the leader in showing how the space industry can work in harmony with holistic conservation.”