Rockets to launch in north east Arnhem Land

Date: Oct 31, 2017

The Arnhem Land Aboriginal Land Trust has granted a lease over 275 hectares of land near Gulkula in north east Arnhem Land to Gumatj Corporation Limited for use as a commercial rocket launching facility.

On 21 September, the Northern Land Council’s Executive Council, using its delegated powers, approved the lease and directed the Land Trust to grant the lease. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion then gave his consent.

Gumatj Corporation proposes to sublease part of the land to a private company, Equatorial Launch Australia Pty Ltd (ELA), which will construct and operate the station on the Dhupuma Plateau on the Gulkala escarpment.  
The east-facing coast and proximity to the equator make the site ideal for launching rockets.

The Chair of Space Industry Australia, Brett Biddington, told the ABC in July that the proposal by ELA made sense because of the Northern Territory’s remoteness and proximity to the equator.

“The closer you can get to the equator, if you launch to the east, you get the advantage of the Earth’s own rotation around its axis.  So, you get the spin of the Earth giving an extra kick to your launch vehicle.

The facility will be called the Arnhem Space Centre (ASC).  It will be Australia’s first civilian spaceport, and, when operational, will be the only facility of its kind in the south-east Asia region.

ELA has been contracted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an independent agency of the United States Government responsible for the civilian space program as well as aeronautics and aerospace research, to prepare a feasibility study on launching “sounding rockets” from the ASC.


The NLC conducted extensive consultations about the proposal with the Gumatj clan and affected groups.
Preliminary consultations were held with the Gumatj on 27 July. Final consultations were held with the Gumatj at Gunyangara on 9 August, when the Gumatj people gave their consent to the lease in accordance with their traditional decision making process.

As well, the NLC consulted several other clans, other affected Aboriginal persons and Aboriginal organisations at Yirrkala on 3 August. Other meetings were held at Dhalinbuy on 31 July, at Wandawuy on 1 August (as part of a Laynhapuy Homelands Aboriginal Corporation meeting) and with Buymarr residents at Yirrkala on 2 August.
Widespread support was given by the attendees at these meetings.


ELA has advised that sounding rockets range in length from 5 to 20 metres. The sounding rockets that are likely to be used will be about 15 metres in length. 

Soon after their launch, the rockets will drop their first stage within an exclusion zone approximately 1km from the launch site. The sounding rockets then rise in an arc and spend about 10-20 minutes in space where they will conduct scientific experiments before descending back to Earth by parachute.

An independent consultant engaged by the NLC advised that sounding rockets can be safely launched from the proposed site. He also advised that there will be no significant issues with noise, rocket motor exhaust and injury from normal debris and errant vehicles. 

The independent expert further advised that there is enough distance between the launch site and neighbouring towns and outstations to protect local populations, and access to the site will be restricted. 


Because the lease agreement may be worth more than $1 million, it required the approval of the Indigenous Affairs Minister, Senator Nigel Scullion. He gave approval on 29 September.

“Coupled with the recent announcement by the Commonwealth Government of its intention to establish a domestic space agency, the potential establishment of a commercial rocket launching facility on remote Indigenous land in the Northern Territory represents an exciting development with regional and national economic benefits,” Senator Scullion told the NLC.


ELA CEO Scott Wallis said the Canberra-based company would use proven launch vehicle technologies to provide access to space for commercial, research and government organisations.

“This project provides a competitive alternative to large launch complexes, both in terms of infrastructure and associated launch costs,” he said.

“It will also support and complement recent Australian space developments and ventures in small satellite construction and space environmental testing, and supports increased access to the space environment and the benefits it provides to the Australian economy.”

“What we are doing has never been attempted commercially in Australia,” Mr Wallis said. “This is uncharted territory, it certainly can be done, and Australia will enter into new frontiers for its space industry once launches commence.”       

Rocket safety expert, Dean Balach, assesses safety issues at the Arnhem Space Centre (ASC)

The NLC engaged a rocket safety expert, Dean Balach, to assess safety issues at the Arnhem Space Centre (ASC). He found “no significant issues” with launching rockets from ASC. Mr Balach has an extensive background with range safety and launch operations for similar rocket campaigns.

He said the ASC appears to be ideally located:  “The range is close enough to the towns (Yirrkala, Gunyangara and Nhulunbuy) so services are available to the range personnel, (and) remote enough to afford ideal safety for the public.”

“The site location provides a substantial buffer to protect the public from all potential ground and flight safety risks, and the downrange population density offers the users many launch vehicle and trajectory options,” Mr Balach’s report concluded.

“Launch vehicle processing can be safely conducted on the range, as ASC affords the range user ample buffer to conduct ground operations for both Phase 1 and potential later phases.

“Given the proposed launch site and the sparse population distribution and density, Phase 1 sounding rockets can be safely launched from ASC.

“There are no significant issues with noise, rocket motor exhaust, or injury from normal debris or errant vehicles.

“Normal and dispersed impacting debris can be safely contained without undue burden for potential launch vehicles and trajectory options.”

What is a sounding rocket?

The website of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) says sounding rockets take their name from the nautical term “to sound”, which means to take measurements.

“Since 1959, NASA-sponsored space and earth science research has used sounding rockets to test instruments used on satellites and spacecraft and to provide information about the sun, stars, galaxies and Earth’s atmosphere and radiation,” NASA says.

“This type of testing is unique because it’s simple, cost effective and time efficient. The experiments for the payload can be developed in about six months. The rockets are divided into two parts; the payload and a solid-fuelled rocket motor. Many of the motors used are surplus military motors.

“After the launch, as the rocket motor uses its fuel, it separates from the payload and falls back to Earth. Meanwhile, the payload continues into space and begins conducting the experiment.

“In most cases, after the payload has re-entered the atmosphere, it is brought gently down to Earth by way of a parachute and is then retrieved. By recovering parts of the payload, it can be refurbished and flown again, resulting in tremendous savings.

“Scientific payloads are carried to altitudes from 30 miles to more than 800 miles (40km to 1287km). And although the overall time in space is short (typically five to 20 minutes), the experiment is perfectly positioned to carry out its mission successfully.

“Data is often collected and returned to Earth by telemetry links, which transfer the data from the payload directly to researchers on the ground. This is similar to how you pick up tunes on a radio.”