4 mins read 01 Jul 2021

Southern Launch approved for new test launch site at Whalers Way

Southern Launch has been granted approval for a test launch campaign at Whalers Way in South Australia to test the viability of the site for future launches. 

Mr Andrew Curran, General Manager Infrastructure, and Mr Mike Damp, Executive Director, Southern Launch, breaking ground at Whalers Way, 17 June 2021. Credit: Southern Launch

The Adelaide-based private rocket company is set to begin constructing a temporary launch site at the tip of the Eyre Peninsula to support a test launch campaign. 

The site was approved on the 17th June 2021. Measuring roughly 10 metres tall, the three small rockets will be launched southwards over the Great Australian Bight before the year is over. While they will not carry a major payload, their purpose is to gather data on how the launches will impact the natural environment by measuring the noise and vibrations propagated. This information will inform future launches, should the full Whalers Way Launch Complex be approved.

A successful proposal for the permanent launch complex would allow larger scale rockets to eventually bring satellites into polar and sun synchronous orbits, making a significant step towards providing local and global satellite and rocket companies with access to space. Indeed, increasing the nation’s capability to take payloads to orbit and beyond is one of the key priority areas in the Australian Civil Space Strategy.

Consistent with the Australian Space Agency’s goal to promote responsible regulation of space activities, the approval of this test launch site is the product of multiple negotiations and contention.

Southern Launch has selected Whalers Way as a strategic location for launches. Credit: Southern Launch (twitter: @southernlaunch)

The environmental responsibility of space activities

The contention around space activities and their impact on the natural environment is long-standing, and the construction of the test launch site at Whalers Way is one such example. In fact, the proposal of the test site on the privately-owned land has caused some ongoing, well-founded concern among conservationists and traditional owners. 

Whalers Way is about 32km from Port Lincoln. It is a popular coastal tourist destination of cliffs, blowholes, caves and beaches.

Nature Conservation Society of SA advocate, Julia Peacock, was one of many who opposed the construction of the launch site, emphasising that the area is “a really special conservation area” protected under a heritage agreement, and that “we would really like to see that agreement honoured.” Additionally, she urges that “an industrial facility that involves explosions that are noisy and causes vibrations” would impact several threatened species inhabiting the area, including the southern emu-wren and the white-fronted whip bird. 

Meanwhile, Nauo elder Jody Miller states that Whalers Way is a culturally significant area. He says “there are stories [out there] and we don't want to destroy anything… let it be natural.” 

While cleared, the proposed launch site at Whalers Way is pristine heritage land, causing contention among many groups. Credit: Emma Pedler via ABC

A holistic and regulated approach to conservation

Despite these objections, permission was still granted by the State Government’s State Commission Assessment Panel (SCAP) for the construction of the test launch site, provided that Southern Launch met several conditions.

It has been specified that the infrastructure shall not permanently change the land use or result in any permanent structures on the site and that the launch pad would not result in any native vegetation removal.

Furthermore, according to South Launch CEO Lloyd Damp, the purpose of the test launch site itself is to specifically measure the effect of the noise on the local species and ecosystem using an array of microphones and specialised cameras. 

"We're working with one of the best universities in Australia to undertake the measurements and then provide that for the environmental impact statement assessment," Mr Damp said. "Should the effect be detrimental to the environment then, of course, the project as it is proposed shouldn't proceed — we should look at other mitigating strategies or activities so that the local environment is preserved." 

Southern Launch launched its first rocket from Koonibba, near Ceduna, in 2020. Credit: Southern Launch

This is not Southern Launch’s first rodeo. In September 2020, the private company launched a small payload from Koonibba Test Range to the edge of space, having partnered and collaborated with the local Aboriginal community, members of which helped monitor the site.

Ultimately, it is the hope of Southern Launch (and many members of the wider Australian space community) that it can continue its strong track record in launching rockets from Australian soil while preserving and prioritising the natural environment from which it operates.