7 mins read 21 Jun 2022

Equatorial Launch Australia to launch three NASA rockets from the NT

NASA is set to launch three suborbital sounding rockets in the coming months from Equatorial Launch Australia’s Arnhem Space Centre in the NT.

An aerial image of part of the Arnhem Space Centre (ASC). Credit: Equatorial Launch Australia.

Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), a launch company based in the Northern Territory, has announced that its first customer NASA is gearing up for a commercial launch this month from the Australian company's Arnhem Space Centre complex.

The US Space Agency has announced that it will be launching three rockets during June and July on science missions to observe a part of the sky that can only be seen from the southern hemisphere. Its mission is to find out more about the electromagnetic radiation from stars and to understand the features of a planet that make it habitable.

“It’s terrific to be here in Darwin today to declare Equatorial Launch Australia and NASA [are a] go for launch right here in the Northern Territory,” said Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as he officially announced the launch at a press conference in Darwin.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese delivers the exciting announcement via press conference in Darwin. Credit: Twitter @AlboMP.

A scientific mission

Two of the three missions will focus on Alpha Centauri A and B, two of the three-star Alpha Centauri system that are the closest stars to our Sun. The third will study X-rays emanating from the interstellar medium – the clouds of gases and particles in the space between stars.

The first launch, targeted for June 26, will carry the X-ray Quantum Calorimeter, or XQC, from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. XQC will carry unique X-ray detectors, cooled to a frigid one-twentieth of a degree above absolute zero, to measure interstellar X-rays with unprecedented precision to better understand the interstellar medium and its influence on the structure and evolution of galaxies and stars.

The second mission is the Suborbital Imaging Spectrograph for Transition region Irradiance from Nearby Exoplanet host stars, or SISTINE, from the University of Colorado Boulder. Targeted for launch on July 4, SISTINE will study how ultraviolet light from stars affects the atmospheres of the planets around them, including the gases thought to be signs of life.

The third mission, targeted to launch on July 12, is the Dual-channel Extreme Ultraviolet Continuum Experiment, or DEUCE, also from the University of Colorado Boulder. DEUCE will measure a so-far unstudied part of their extreme ultraviolet light spectrum. These measurements are needed to model stars similar and smaller than our Sun, as well as understand their effects on planetary atmospheres.

“This commercial launch range in Australia opens up new access to the Southern Hemisphere’s night sky, expanding the possibilities for future science missions,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate.

The Alpha Centauri system as viewed in optical and x-ray spectra. Credit: University of Sydney.

Making history for commercial space in Australia

This is a historically significant launch in many respects. It marks a significant milestone in Australia’s spacefaring history, further cementing Australia as a player in the global growth of commercial space activities.

This campaign will be the first time that NASA will launch from a commercial launch facility outside of the US. It will also be the first NASA rocket that takes off from Australian soil since the launches from Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Woomera Range Complex in 1995.

The mission will operate from ELA’s Arnhem Space Centre (ASC), the only commercially owned and run multi-user equatorial launch site in the world. In contrast, most spaceports around the world are federal or government-owned/operated facilities. The ASC is a commercial space launch facility, located on the Dhupuma Plateau near Nhulunbuy, on the lands of the Yolngu people, who are the Traditional Custodians and Landowners.

The upcoming launch campaign will occur in Arnhem Space Centre (ASC). It will be the first time that NASA will launch from a commercial launch facility outside of the US. Credit: Equatorial Launch Australia.

International collaboration between ELA and NASA

Founded in 2015, ELA is a launch company that provides services such as launch planning, licensing, execution and payload management. While its headquarters are at Lot Fourteen in Adelaide, it owns and operates the Arnhem Space Centre. The ASC is a multi-user commercial spaceport in the Nhulunbuy area on the Gove Peninsula, which is part of East Arnhem in the Northern Territory. It is advantageously positioned for launch due to its excellent weather and upper atmospheric conditions. Being 12 degrees south of the equator, it offers access to the full range of orbits and inclinations, reducing costs significantly for rocket companies.

“The geographic location, proximity to the equator and the extensive logistics services offered on the Gove/Nhulunbuy area makes the ASC very attractive to global rocket companies,” said Michael Jones, Executive Chairman and Group CEO of ELA.

ELA also has a strong history of working with the Yolngu and Gumatj people. Carley Scott, the previous CEO of the company, placed particular importance on this partnership in a previous interview with the Australian Space Discovery Centre (ASDC): “It’s a really good opportunity to not just do best practice in terms of aerospace, but to also integrate really good land management practices from a local cultural perspective,” she said.

Students from Dhupuma Barker, a school in Yolgnu area, are excited to meet visitors from NASA for the launch campaign. Credit: Twitter @HeadSpaceAU.

NASA has formed many partnerships with Australian organisations, including the Artemis Accords, NASA’s Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder mission, and the development of a lunar rover as part of NASA’s Artemis project.

“We have been overwhelmed with the support provided by ELA, the Australian Space Agency, the Northern Territory Government, the Northern Land Council, and the Nhulunbuy community. Their support has been essential in this effort,” said Scott Bissett, the NASA Sounding Rockets Program Australian campaign manager, who was pleased to see several years of preparation for this mission coming to fruition.

The launch mount at Arnhem Space Centre (ASC). Credit: Twitter @HeadSpaceAU.

Planning for future launches from Australia

There are many hands working together to ensure the success of this campaign.

“It is a tremendous honour and reward for the hard work our company has carried out in developing the ASC to have NASA launch these three missions with us,” said Jones

The company is already planning for future milestones. “We are in advance commercial discussions with nine other major rocket companies, and we hope to carry out at least two additional launches in 2022 before ramping up our launch cadence to over 50 launches per year by 2024/25,” Jones reports.

Although the launch site is commercially owned, the local government has been heavily involved in backing the project since its inception. 

The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory Government Natasha Fyles comments, “NASA is adding capacity and rocketing East Arnhem Land into the global spotlight for investors – and this will help grow our industry, create more jobs for locals and more opportunities for businesses to expand. The project is a big win for the Northern Territory.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Science Minister Ed Husic, Chief Minister Natasha Fyles and Labor party representatives from the NT attended the press conference to make an announcement about the new launch campaign. Credit: Twitter @AlboPM.

“It is a remarkable achievement what we have done and all the more so, given we have had no Federal Government support to date,” Jones says. “We are set to achieve a couple of incredible firsts in the space history of Australia.”

“Launch is the most public-facing part of the space industry and has a unique ability to shape the public psyche to what is possible and inspire generations,” adds Philip Citowicki, Executive Officer Space Industry Association of Australia.

“Seeing the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Minister Ed Husic in Darwin today talking to the media about the ELA NASA launches shows just how serious this is being taken by the government. We strongly welcome their comments about workforce and education as well.”

“Returning launch is one of the few major pieces of the space industry jigsaw puzzle needed to further accelerate our industries growth. It’s also a major step along the way in the development of sovereign space capability, which has been prioritised by the government,” he said. 

“Looking forward, our industry stands on the precipice of having the ability to launch Australian satellites and technology on Australian launch vehicles from Australian launch sites – this is very exciting.”