25 Jun 2019

Territory space - truly boundless possible

NASA has announced it has selected the Arnhem Space Centre as the location for its 2020 sounding rocket program - a scientific program conducting experiments in the earth’s atmosphere.

To many this will be a surprise though for a few it is has been years in the making. Mr Scott Wallis, the founder of Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), and his team have been working to develop a space launch facility in East Arnhem Land since 2015.

ELA has partnered with the Gumatj clan, the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land that will be home to the Arnhem Space Centre. In late 2017 the Gumatj entered into a sub-lease with ELA providing certainty of land tenure for the project. However, the potential opportunities from this partnership go beyond the landlord and tenant relationship with opportunities to actively participate in the project during construction and operations, and to build new tourism and education experiences.

East Arnhem Space Centre timeline

2015: ELA founded

2016: NASA visits East Arnhem Land to inspect proposed site

2017: Gumatj Corporation sub-lease 40 hectares of land to ELA

2018: NASA confirms to the Chief Minister that East Arnhem Land is a preferred site

2019: NASA announces intention to contract with ELA for a sounding rocket program

2020: NASA Sounding Rocket campaign

The Territory is not new to NASA. NASA owns the CSIRO-managed Alice Springs Ballooning Facility that has been operating since the 1970s.

So why is this announcement such a big deal? Access to space, or launch capability, is now recognised as a National Civil Space Priority Area. Commercial launch services are an important part of the space industry ecosystem and will enable Australians unprecedented access to space. The establishment of the Australian Space Agency heralds a new focus on growing the Australian space industry that is already estimated to worth more than $3 billion.

The Territory will be the home of the first sovereign commercial space launch facility in Australia. The choice of location recognises the competitive advantage of Australia’s north coast - being close to the equator. 

The proposed facility near Nhulunbuy is located on the Gove Peninsula at the western tip of the Gulf of Carpentaria within 1360kms of the equator or 12 degrees south of the equator. As you get close to the equator the earth spins a bit faster, so you get an extra boost to your rocket and you use less fuel or can carry more weight. The rockets range in size (see figure 1) from 5m to 20m - so from just below the height of a street light to a little taller than an AFL goal post. The initial stage of the Arnhem Space Centre will include three launch pads each just a little bigger than the size of a house block.

Graph showing different sizes of sounding rockets
Figure 1: NASA’s 2018 Sounding Rockets annual report shows the relative sizes of different sounding rockets (Source: NASA’s 2018 annual report)

But space is not the end game. Space is a critical enabler of our industries, our businesses and our lifestyles. Whether it is agribusiness, fishing, mining, oil and gas or national security, space can give us an edge. For northern Australia, space presents an opportunity to improve productivity, grow, be globally competitive and provide high wage jobs. To achieve a more prosperous and secure future, for all Australians, we must continue to grow the northern economy.

An example of how space is already supporting the northern economy is the Precision Pastoral Management System (PPMS). Developed in Alice Springs and on properties across Northern Australia, the PPMS is assisting pastoralists manage operations that stretch across properties the size of small European countries. Space is enabling productivity improvements and driving down the costs of production. The system is now being exported to North and South America and there is interest from India.

One thing for sure is that the establishment of Australia’s first sovereign commercial space launch facility will inspire all Australians and will encourage the next generation of children in the region to ‘reach for the stars’. NASA’s announcement is a big vote of confidence for the Territory.

The Territory is ready to work with investors looking for the ideal location to host their space industry project. To find out what's possible email

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