NASA has chosen to launch rockets from Equatorial Launch Australia's spaceport in Nhulunbuy, 700 kilometres east of Darwin, in 2020.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre/Wallops Flight Facility has indicated it would like to progress discussions with ELA on a temporary launch facility for sounding rockets for scientific investigations.
Four rockets will launch next year under the contract. Sounding rockets spend a short time in sub-orbital space, conducting tests and collecting data.
ELA CEO Carley Scott told the ABC that this is the first time NASA has agreed to launch rockets from a commercial spaceport, highlighting the maturity of Australia’s space industry.
“What we think the deal will mean is bringing unprecedented growth in the space sector in Australia," Scott said.
“NASA’s interest in conducting a sounding rocket campaign in Australia shows the increasing importance of commercial launch activities from Australia,” head of the Australian Space Agency, Dr Megan Clark said.
“As these activities build momentum, the Agency will continue its focus on creating a supportive regulatory environment that fosters industry growth, while ensuring public safety and considering our international obligations.”
ELA’s business case is built on leveraging the NT’s proximity to the equator to reduce fuel consumption and lower launch costs.
“It’s a significant point,” ELA CEO Carley Scott said to ADM in April. “It gives us an internationally competitive position because if you’re within 15 degrees either side of the equator, you get extra rotational velocity from the ground speed of the Earth. So it’s less fuel and more payload per mission.
“We’ve got the low risks of a remote location, but it’s a mining town so there’s a deep water port that’s already established, city quality airport, main township, roads, and fibre optic cable.”
The prospect of an operational spaceport in the Territory will certainly be of interest to Defence, which is reportedly investigating tactically responsive space capabilities to off-set the anti-satellite capabilities of near-peer competitors. This could involve repeated launches of small satellites from Australia to provide navigation and communication services to deployed troops operating in a space-denied environment.