16 mins read 22 Sep 2021

Carley Scott Blazing a Trail from Arnhem Land to Space

As competition within the space industry heats up, Equatorial Launch Australia is close to completing its Arnhem Space Centre launch site in readiness to send NASA sounding rockets into space. Carley Scott filled us in on the science that they will be doing, and how the company is engaging with local communities to make this a win-win for Australia.

Carley Scott, CEO of Equatorial Launch Australia. Carley sat down to chat with us about what ELA does, their contract with NASA, and how she is helping Australia take on the world in the space industry. Credit: ABC News.

The Australian Space Agency might have only recently reached its third birthday, but already we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to our sovereign space capabilities. From rocket companies to smallsat developers, mission design and control specialists, launch and space services providers, we have just about every avenue of the next stage of human exploration and utilisation of space covered.

One of the companies bringing us back to the cutting edge of space and launch is Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA). Founded by Scot Wallis and run by CEO Carley Scott, ELA is a company focused on being able to facilitate the launch and recovery of things flown to space from Australia. At the top of their list of to-dos is the development of a spaceport close to the equator that would provide efficient access to a range of different Earth orbits.

The Northern Territory’s Gulkula Peninsula is uniquely positioned to support this capability, but it won’t be the first time that the area has been a contributing part of Australia’s space industry. The site was used in the 1960s and 70s by a European space research organisation (known as the European Launcher Development Community) as a space tracking station and featured several high-tech satellite trackers that were used to monitor the path of rockets launched from Woomera.

The East Arnhem Space Centre under development by ELA has already been selected by NASA as its launch site for a series of three sounding rockets, with the first launch expected to take place next year. This is tremendously exciting not just for ELA, but for Australia more broadly, as it is the first time that NASA will launch their scientific rockets from a commercial site and shows that we are ready to be significant partners to major global space stakeholders.

And the sounding rocket program is really only the start. 

One of the particularly nice aspects of ELA’s operation has been their engagement with local Indigenous groups, and their focus on the environmental sustainability of the land. Traditional landowners the Yolngu people have had a long connection with the stars and have been able to take control of much of the implementation of the spaceport.

This week Carley finds herself quarantining in Howard Springs as she prepares to go back on-site to the Arnhem Space Centre, and I was lucky enough to be able to have a chat with her over Zoom about ELA and her own journey in the space industry.

The Arnhem Space Centre is taking shape and is ready for experts from NASA who will join local crews as part of a site set up trip this month. Credit: Carley Scott.

Carley, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with Can I start by asking what it is that ELA does?

Equatorial Launch Australia or ELA is a spaceport development and management group. We aim to be able to assist people to fly, so whether it's reaching space or being recovered from space, that is our aim and we set up what is really an airport for rockets. And then we facilitate that access for people who either have the vehicles or have the payloads to make sure they can access space efficiently.

We’ve seen some great photos of the launch site up near Nhulunbuy which is under construction at the moment, but Australia also has other sites like Whalers Way and Abbott Point as well. How will your launch site be different?

You can put it down to three things: we are close to the equator, we have a really low-risk profile with wide-open launch capabilities, and there is fantastic infrastructure already in place. To explain, first, we are at a latitude of 12 degrees south, and within 15 degrees on either side of the equator, you gain the benefit of Earth's rotational velocity to give you additional groundspeed and a more efficient ride into space. That is a significant benefit to a range of customers who are looking to have greater payload capabilities. There's a broad range of azimuths that we can achieve from the site, and with equatorial orbits being like a control point for all other orbits it will be of continued strategic interest to governments around the world. Next, we have great weather conditions that provide great launch reliability, and there is very low interference from radio frequencies and from other industries. And finally, it’s very direct to come into the Gove area, and you've got a city-quality airport, a deep-water port, fibre optic cabling, and a township with a 32-bed hospital. These sorts of advantages are huge for people who are bringing their equipment to the site.

So, the township of Gove stands to really benefit a lot from having the opportunity to join the space industry then?

Yes, absolutely. You've got a town that's in transition from mining. Rio Tinto’s predecessors set up in the 1960s, and it really has been a town that has had a lot of influence from the mining sector. Now, as they start pulling out of the region over the next 10 years, there is interest around what other jobs and economies can spring forward. And while space isn't aimed to be a direct replacement, it is a really exciting one.

Definitely seems like it! I've seen a nice concept video showing a view of the Arnhem Space Centre and what it's going to look like with a visitor centre and the launch pads.  This seems like a great way for ELA to engage with the public and the local township. Can you tell us a little bit about your plans for public engagement?

Public engagement started a few years ago through formal engagement processes in the region. We went through a formal process in 2017 with the Northern Land Council, and that really was an important step to see that there are statutory bodies talking about, well, what does it look like to have rockets flying in your backyard. For us going forward now, we have a communication plan and engagement plan, and when you have a customer like NASA coming on board, they also have their own outreach activities that they extend to the local community and the Australian community more broadly. Those will be made available in East Arnhem Land too, which is really exciting and raises awareness about space, about launch, about heliophysics and the scientific experiments that we're helping to support, and all sorts of other space activities.

And there are jobs being created as well. From the moment that we started to engage and clear the land, it was the Indigenous community that were doing the clearing and checking that land care was appropriate. People on site are being led by local contractors who are making sure that the construction of the spaceport meets NASA’s quality standards. We're also going to be bringing more people into our team as we start to grow as a business, people from the environmental management community and also on the engagement side, all of which is really exciting.

It is a really exciting time! Just on the spaceport itself, is there any avenue for you to have spaceports in other parts of Australia in the future? Is that something that ELA would consider?

It’s certainly possible to be a spaceport management company that looks at a range of different sites. Australia is a great place for launch. Our equatorial site is exceptionally efficient and will be able to capture a huge amount of the market. About 80% of launches will be GEO (geostationary orbit) launches, so that's from northern Australia. There’s also a lot of talk around the LEO (low Earth orbit) markets and smallsats. And that’s a really exciting conversation. Close to the equator there’s not much competition, so it’s an appealing place for us to start, but there are other sites that people have talked to us about and we will consider them.

Let’s talk about your journey for a minute. You've been working in Arnhem Land since about 2015. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you to become the CEO of ELA?

I don't know that there's anything that would be a classical journey into developing and managing a spaceport in Australia! I'd specialised in economic development, and really understanding investment, business development, community engagement, and how to try and make physical places work well. That led me to look for opportunities to re-skill people and develop new industries when automotive closures were happening in Victoria. That was a really good foundation for what was happening in East Arnhem Land around 2014. Rio Tinto was pulling back with what they were doing in the community, and there was a job looking at what industries could be developed for the future.

Space was one that we identified, and I ended up speaking to the founder of Equatorial Launch Australia, Scott Wallace, who'd had this vision for what Australia could do in launch. Scott’s background is space strategy and really understanding why and what technologies would work well into the future and what sites would be really efficient, and I was having conversations with Scott about what he could be doing and how East Arnhem Land might play a role in that.

In 2015 I finished a role as CEO of an economic development entity up in East Arnhem Land. I came back down south and Scott and the team were interested to talk to me about whether I'd come on board as the CEO of ELA. With my business experience and our matching operational styles, and the sincere passion we both had for space and the people on the ground in East Arnhem Land, it was a good fit.

It's been a good couple of years for you since then too. You were listed as one of 2019’s 100 Women of Influence, and then of course you were a recipient this year of the Medal of the Order of Australia. Amazing achievements. How did that feel?

It's really heartening because you squirrel away doing as much as you can to give business and industry as much of an opportunity as possible and with space and launch, it really isn't just about doing your own business. It is about being part of the space community in Australia and internationally and seeing how you can foster those trade relations between Australia, the US and other countries. To have that recognised was really, really warming. It's nice to think that people have gone out of their way to give you a pat on the back and put you forward for those sorts of recognition programs.

Concept art of the Arnhem Space Centre. CEO Carley Scott expects the first launches to take place in 2022. Credit: ELA.

Absolutely yes, what you're doing for the space industry in this country is amazing. The industry in Australia is still quite young and we really need people like yourself with the passion and the know-how to be able to get it up and running to the point where we can be a part of the global space community. But I've got to ask you a question about NASA. You’ve got a $1,000,000 contract now to launch sounding rockets but what I want to know is how does that even happen? I mean, do you just call somebody in NASA and say, look, we've got a launchpad, can we launch your rockets?

Ha! In truth, the sounding rocket program had flown in Australia a number of decades ago out of Woomera, and that program office at NASA was enthusiastic to try and come back to Australia and had been working on it for over a decade. I had an email from one of the program leads just the other day saying finally our boots are back on the ground here, because they know that the ability to fly rockets out of Australia is really valuable. So, a lot of the enthusiasm was already there at NASA. But for the sounding rocket program, we had to submit to a competitive process which we ended up winning, and that was really, really gratifying.

It's amazing, and those rockets are not small either, up to about 15 or 20 metres tall. So, we're talking about something comparable to Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. Speaking of which, are you able to look at different operators like Rocket Lab and take what they have learned about launching rockets?

There are a range of different things that you try and glean from other rocket manufacturers and site operators around the world. Because, as you said, if we can launch the vehicles that NASA wants to bring out, 15 to 20-metre vehicles, they have significant payload and thrust capabilities. If we can build the site for that, there are a whole range of other vehicles that can be accommodated, and we’ve been having discussions around this with NASA. They’ve been able to have some input into what's there at the site and what we need going forward.

I can't wait to be watching those rockets launch for the first time. Hopefully, you're going to be able to live-stream the launches for us, which would be fantastic! I guess we'll see what happens, but can you tell us what sort of science the sounding rockets are going to be doing?

We'll host telescopes that are most easily classified as heliophysics activities, and that will be looking out to the stars to understand different atmospheres. We’ll be able to start to test some of the equipment that can then be taken on to bigger flights. The sounding rocket program is a great lead-in to test out new technologies that can be grown into larger programs and to do so in a sub-orbital environment first.

Do you have any agreements or are you working with any universities in Australia?

We've been in discussion with a range of universities. In particular, we've been talking to Swinburne University who we have an MOU with and working on a series of programs to allow students to come through into what we're doing. It's not going to be exclusive by any means, and RMIT and I also talk a lot, and in fact, I'll do a presentation to one of their rocket science programs or physics programs later this year. We're building those pathways and making sure that we can do it in a way that's meaningful.

In Australia, we also have companies like Gilmore Space Technologies, Black Sky Aerospace, and others. Have you been looking at forming partnerships with other companies in the space industry?

Yes, we have. We've looked at domestic as well as international companies and we'll see how that comes to fruition. I think the first step for us is to be operating really strongly as a business and then to look at bringing partners in, which I think will happen next year.

I want to just go forward a few years now. If you were to speculate a little bit looking at the next decade or even further into the future, do you think that there's a chance that one day we could be launching crewed spacecraft from the Arnhem Space Centre? Is that something that we could eventually see?

There’s so much in regard to regulations and getting some comfort with the government around these types of space activities that I think there's a lot of work for us to do as a nation to build our confidence around what we can do in space. The Space Agency is full of great people that work really hard to try and build the enthusiasm and the pathway with the regulations. I think there's a real opportunity for Australia to position itself as a world leader in that regard through having really efficient regulatory processes. We should certainly consider how we could play a role in these types of space missions though. We have a great setting to facilitate launch and recovery, so you can't cross it off and say that it's not something that you would ever consider.

Something to look out for then, just not in the short-term! I've got one last thing to ask, and that is about any advice that you might have for people who want to work in the space industry. We've already sort of touched on this a little bit, but what would you say to young people who are looking to start a career in the space industry over the next decade?

Well, don't give up. The space industry is such a sincerely exciting setting to be a part of with so many different things that you can do and that will pique your interest. I would say to any young person that there are so many opportunities, you just need to find out what you're really passionate about and don't think that space is too hard to get into. There are exceptional, intelligent, passionate people involved in space, but there is also a broad range of ways to apply your intelligence and to understand the value that it can bring. So, I'd just say keep the door open to space, and if you get the chance, take it because you will be involved with people who are passionate, exciting and who are driving for a better future. It is just a great community to be a part of!

What a way to finish! Thank you so much for chatting with us Carley, and we hope to be able to report on your and ELA’s achievements in the Australian space industry for years to come.

Concept art of the Arnhem Space Centre. When complete, the site will have 3 launchpads as well as a visitor's centre. Credit: ELA.

With the competition in space launch and recovery only increasing, ELA finds itself in a very good position with the opportunity to harness the unique geography of Australia to provide efficient access to a range of orbits. This is something for all of us to get excited about – even if it doesn’t include crewed spaceflight, at least for the moment.

Right now, we are waiting with anticipation for NASA’s appraisal and more photos of the spaceport, and then for the first launch which is currently scheduled to take place next year. ELA has come an incredibly long way in a very short time. In 2015 the very idea of having a commercial equatorial spaceport in Australia would have been fanciful, and yet here we are, ready to launch NASA sounding rockets into space.

All of this is all due to the vision and capabilities of the people at the helm of one of the brightest stars of the Australian space industry. Go well ELA. We are all behind you.