Australia’s fledgling space industry has received a shot in the arm after NASA agreed to launch several scientific rockets from a remote part of the Northern Territory by next year.

The new Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA) site, located at the new Arnhem Space Centre some 700km east of Darwin near the Arnhemland town of Nhulunbuy, was established with the intention of being Australia’s first commercial space centre – and the newly-announced NASA deal fulfils that goal.

The monumental move is expected to put Australian on the global space map and create jobs for the remote region.

Run by ELA – a joint venture between the Gumatj Corporation, Developing East Arnhem Limited, and the NT Government – the Arnhem Space Centre was identified in 2015 as an alternative southern hemisphere launch partner for NASA sounding rockets.

Developed with the approval of the traditional Gumatj land owners and the Northern Land Council, the 60ha site sits on a 275ha lease – adjacent to the Gulkala-Garma mine – that will ultimately feature multiple launch sites, providing a range of different rockets for sub-orbital and orbital access to space.

Small rockets, big deal

For over 40 years, university and other researchers have used the NASA Sounding Rocket Program (SRP) to launch scientific instruments on small, relatively inexpensive rockets into Earth’s upper atmosphere or space.

The 15-metre rockets follow a parabolic path, rising to an altitude of nearly 300km and typically providing just 5 to 20 minutes in space or the upper atmosphere.

Sounding rockets and their payloads may land over 100km from their launch site – most frequently, NASA’s Wallops Island, Virginia facility in the US – and often cannot be recovered due to logistical or other issues.

However, the position of the ELA site provides “land recovery” options that, a recent Sounding Rocket Working Group (SRWG) meeting noted, “will likely enable an Australian launch campaign to become a reality in 2020 and hopefully permit a regular cadence of such launches in the decades to come.”

Building a better launchpad

NASA sees the new site as a “pivot” from South Australia’s 122,188 square kilometre RAAF Woomera Test Range, which has not launched NASA rockets since 1995.

The ELA site, SRWG notes, provides deep-water port access, which could make it cheaper to transport rockets and payloads that, when the Woomera site was still being used, had to be hauled hundreds of kilometres through the South Australian desert.

Its remoteness introduces other challenges, including the need for high-bandwidth ‘command uplink facilities’; a ready supply of liquid nitrogen and dry nitrogen for cooling and payload purging; permanent ‘cleanroom’ facilities for integrating components before launch; and capabilities for “paramount” payload recovery.

ELA CEO Carley Scott, who was last year appointed to bring the organisation’s vision to fruition, called the announcement “the single most important event to date in putting the Australian space industry on the global map”, noting that it “will open the doors to growth and job opportunities in the Australian space industry.”

When the first of what are expected to be four sounding rockets lifts off from the site next year, it will be NASA’s first-ever space launch from a site that is not owned by a government.

Recent years have seen NASA diversifying its space-related operations, partnering with Elon Musk-backed SpaceX for a series of major rocket launches and, more recently, choosing commercial partners for moon landing services and announcing that it will open the International Space Station to commercial opportunities.

As well as servicing NASA and other international bodies, the ELA project will provide new domestic capabilities for Australian researchers and startups that have previously relied on overseas launch providers to get their satellites and other projects off the ground.

That trend spells opportunity for Australia’s nascent space industry, for which the ELA win marks a significant victory given that the Australian Space Agency (ASA) was funded just a year ago, established 10 months ago, and the South Australian location of its headquarters only announced in December.

The space industry is expected to create 20,000 jobs in Australia by 2030, with the ASA employing 20 full-time staff.