Sun. Oct 17th, 2021

Just inland from the northeast coast of Arnhem Land, dozens of personnel from the world’s largest space agency are fine-tuning a rocket launch pad ahead of a historic mission.

In a deep thicket of tropical forest, the small stretch of cleared Aboriginal land is valuable to the space industry because of its proximity to the equator, and – as NASA scientists have found – it is incredibly hot.

“We had expected to work 10-hour days and thought it would be nice and easy and about eight hours [we found] that’s about enough before we went into the air conditioner. “

Satellite dishes and a 40-foot (12.2-meter) rocket have appeared at the site near Gulkula, a significant ceremonial site about 30 minutes from the coastal town of Nhulunbuy.

When they finally launch a set of sub-orbital sounding rockets into space, it will be the first time NASA has launched them from a commercial launch pad outside the United States.

A futuristic looking workplace with shipping containers on red soil.
Project managers are confident that rockets will be launched from the site by the middle of next year.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

“We’re launching three telescopic missions,” Mr Bissett said.

“They are actually looking at the Alpha Centauri A and B system and the Milky Way, more or less, by studying the atmosphere on other planets.”

The Northern Territory government has partnered with private investors to provide the Arnhem Space Center with a $ 5 million boost.

The project has been the subject of several delays, including the pandemic that saw the cohort of NASA personnel mixed through mandatory quarantine last month.

However, Lead Agency Equatorial Launch Australia’s CEO Carley Scott says she’s convinced most obstacles have now been cleared.

A satellite standing on the red earth in northeastern Arnhem Land.
Satellites and a rocket launcher have occurred near Nhulunbuy.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

The plan is to lift up by mid-2022.

Partners from Gumatj Indigenous Corporation are eager for the launch to be more than just once, with up to 100 launches a year eventually to follow.

The Australian Space Agency described next year’s launch plans as a signal that this nation is ready to move into the growing aerospace industry, a key plank in its vision to grow a $ 12 billion national space sector by the end of the season.

“This is an internationally competitive location for a space launch,” Ms Scott said.

“You’re located close to the equator and that gives you extra rotational speed.

“That means it fires your rocket faster, you need less fuel, and therefore everyone wants to get into this place to try to get an effective launch.”

A woman with a brown ponytail wearing hi-vis is smiling in a workplace
Equatorial Launch Australia CEO Carley Scott says the Arnhem Land website is internationally competitive.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

The burgeoning industry is also expected to play an important role in a region whose major employer – a bauxite mine – is being wound up.

While next year’s return of 80 NASA personnel will provide flow-on benefits to the region, the project will also keep about 40 workers in continuous employment, many of them indigenous peoples from the local Gumatj clan.

“As we all know, the land around here has been dug up and used for the benefit of others for decades,” Prime Minister Michael Gunner told a delegate meeting Thursday.

“This time, Gumatj has controlled the conversation.”

A native man in conversation with the prime minister and a woman wearing hi-vis
Prime Minister Michael Gunner speaks with Djawa Yunupingu from Gumatj Corporation.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

It is a significant effort for Gumatj, whose stories and culture take inspiration from the heavens above.

“In our stories, we play a major role in the cosmos or solar system – space,” said the chairman of the Gumatj Corporation, Djawa Yunupingu.

Yunupingu said the launch plans were “a step towards the future of our people”.

“What we see here is just the beginning of a new beginning.”

A young man has a sign that says 'Welcome NASA' surrounded by local children
Local kids hang out with NASA’s Scott Bissett.(ABC News: Jesse Thompson)

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