Australian-based launch company Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA) is a step closer to its own domestic space capability with NASA to award a contract to fire rockets from the Northern Territory.
This isn’t yet about placing satellites in orbit. What’s planned initially is to launch sounding rockets that conduct engineering tests and to gather scientific data. These rockets will reach what’s called sub-orbital space and only for a short time, around 15 minutes.
ELA said the contract would see four rockets launched from their spaceport near Nhulunbuy in Arnhem Land, 700 kilometres east of Darwin, next year.
ELA chief executive Carley Scott said this was a first for NASA and a first for Australia as NASA had never before contracted a commercial site for its launches.
She said this was a big tick and endorsement from the world’s most significant space agency.
"NASA always demands the best, so the best site location, the best team and the best support," Scott said.
"The location close to the equator is quite unique. It offers a more efficient launch site. If you are close to the equator the Earth spins a bit faster, so you get an extra boost to your rocket so you use less fuel."
ELA, founded in 2015, is one of a number of Australian space start-ups planning launch facilities but appears to have a head start. Southern Launch in South Australia is planning a launch at Whalers Way on the Eyre Peninsula. The Queensland and federal governments are investigating possible launch sites.
ELA’s big advantage is proximity to the equator, which gives rockets launched towards the east additional velocity, allowing for greater payload with less fuel. It’s also launching over a mostly unpopulated area of Australia.
Its launch site remains under development and is expected to be ready for launches by the end of the year.
Full details of the agreement with NASA haven’t yet been disclosed.
"NASA's [Goddard Space Flight Centre] plans to award a contract to Equatorial Launch Australia to provide services to NASA for a temporary southern hemisphere launch site for conducting scientific investigations," the US government's Federal Business Opportunities website said.
However, getting NASA on board is certainly big step for Australia’s booming space business.
Rod Drury, chairman of the Space Industry Association of Australia, said this was recognition on the global stage of where the Australian space industry was really at.
“Most Australians don’t understand the role that space actually plays in their day-to-day activity, whether it’s your cell phone, whether it’s pumping fuel, whether it’s using the automatic teller machine at your bank – a host of other activities that we’ve become used to and take for granted,” he said.
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