History of space in the Territory

Timeline of space history, see accordiona below for detailed description

The Territory has been involved in Australia’s ‘modern’ space activity for nearly 60 years, with Aboriginal Traditional Owners practicing astronomy for more than 60,000 years. To find out more about this incredible history explore the timeline below.

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Woomera Rocket Range formally established on 1 April in South Australia.

The northern boundary of the range’s north-western missile test flight corridor crosses the south western corner of the Northern Territory (NT). This flight path will be used in 1964-65 for the European Launcher Development Organisation's (ELDO) ‘Blue Streak’ flight tests.

Established for missile testing (not space launch), Woomera is located too far south of the equator to be a viable site for launching satellites to equatorial orbit.

CNES (French space agency) considers Darwin as a potential site for its new national equatorial space launch facility.

In 1965, ELDO also considers a site near Darwin as the location for its new equatorial launch site.

Both proposals are highly rated but come in second, partly for political reasons, to Kourou (French Guiana), which will go on to become the launch facility for the European Space Agency.

The ELDO (a consortium of the United Kingdom (UK), France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and Australia) uses the Woomera Rocket Range as its launch site for development test flights of the Europa 1 satellite launch vehicle.

In 1964-65, the British ‘Blue Streak’ first stage is tested with three flights along the north-western missile corridor (overflying south-west NT).

From 1966, progressive test flights of the entire Europa 1 vehicle, including satellite launch attempts, are fired along a northern satellite launch corridor, which overflies the NT. During these flights, the first stage of the rocket impacts in the NT, at the north of the Simpson Desert. The second stage impacts in the sea beyond Papua New Guinea.

There are 10 ELDO launches from Woomera, but none successfully launches a satellite (see ELDO launch summary below). To protect local inhabitants, ‘rocket shelters’ are constructed at station homesteads and other locations overflown by the Europa vehicles. These are very similar in design to shelters constructed for South Australian properties beneath the planned flightpaths in the 1950s.

ELDO launch summary
Flight Launch date Vehicle configurationRemarks
F-1 5 June 1964 First stage only Partial success
F-2 20 October 1964 First stage only Successful
F-3 22 March 1965 First stage only Successful
F-4 24 May 1966 Active first stage with dummy upper stages and dummy satellite Flight terminated at 136 seconds after launch
F-5 13 November 1966 Active first stage with dummy upper stages and dummy satellite Successful
F-6/1 4 August 1967 Active first and second stages, dummy third stage and satellite Second stage failed to ignite
F-6/2 5 December 1967 Active first and second stages, dummy third stage and satellite First / second stage separation failed
F-7 30 November 1968 All stages active, live satellite Third stage exploded
F-8 3 July 1969 All stages active, live satellite Third stage exploded
F-9 12 June 1970 All stages active, live satellite All stages successful, satellite failed to orbit

NASA establishes a small mobile satellite tracking station near the lighthouse at Larrakeyah Point, Darwin.

On 7 June 1966 it supports the orbital insertion of Orbiting Geophysical Observatory (OGO)-3 into a very eccentric orbit. At the time OGO-3 was the largest experimental satellite placed in orbit.

After the OGO mission, a small team from NASA’s Cooby Creek tracking station (located near Toowoomba, Queensland) uses the Darwin station to support experiments with the Application Technology Satellite program until 1968.

ELDO operates a downrange tracking station for Europa launches at Gove (Nhulunbuy).

The Down Range Guidance and Tracking Station is designed to track and control the third stage of the rocket as it is positioned for inserting the satellite into orbit.

Australia’s first satellite, WRESAT-1 (Weapons Research Establishment Satellite), is launched from Woomera on 29 November 1967.

The satellite is Australian built, but the launcher is provided by the United States (US).

WRESAT uses the northern satellite launch corridor and its first stage falls into the Simpson Desert close to the Queensland border.

The Australian Government rejected proposals for a follow program of WRESAT satellites.

A NASA Apollo Range Instrumented Aircraft (ARIA) is based in Darwin during Apollo missions.

A modified C-135 cargo jet, the ARIA aircraft were developed as mobile tracking stations to fill geographical gaps in NASA’s global tracking network.

During the Apollo program, they provide coverage for Trans Lunar Injection and spacecraft splashdown and recovery.

The Bureau of Meteorology establishes a ground station in Darwin to receive regular weather images from NASA’s Nimbus weather satellites.

Joint Defence Space Research Facility Pine Gap (now Joint Defence Facility, Pine Gap) commences operations.

A signals intelligence station managed jointly by the Central Intelligence Agency, the US National Security Agency and the US National Reconnaissance Office, during the Cold War, Pine Gap played an essential role in the verification of some major arms control agreements.

In the post-Cold War era, Pine Gap is a key component of the ECHELON global surveillance network, a Sigint surveillance program operated by the Five Eyes intelligence alliance (US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK).

Test flights of Britain’s independently-developed Black Arrow satellite launcher take place at Woomera. Black Arrow uses the northern flight corridor and the protective fairings around its satellite payload impact in the NT.

Black Arrow R3 launches the British Prospero satellite on 28 October 1971. It is only the second satellite (to date) to be launched from Woomera.

Britain cancelled the Black Arrow project after Prospero and gave up its own launch capability.

Alice Springs Ballooning Facility is established to support the launch of high altitude balloons carrying scientific instruments for upper atmosphere research and astronomy at non-visual wavelengths (X-ray, UV, infra-red etc).

In 1980 it becomes Australia’s major balloon launching facility and remains in operation today under the management of Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and the University of NSW Canberra.

The Defence Signals Directorate (now the Australian Signals Directorate) opens a signals intelligence gathering facility at Shoal Bay, near Darwin.

A Landsat satellite ground station is established at Alice Springs to provide Australia direct access to data from the US Landsat series of remote sensing satellites.

Australia is one of the first countries outside the US to establish such a station.

Part of the Australian Centre for Remote Sensing in the 1980s and 1990s, the centre is now operated by Geoscience Australia for the Near-Earth Observation Group and has been upgraded to receive data from a wide range of satellites.

Following an unsuccessful attempt to develop an equatorial launch facility at Cape York in Queensland, Space Transportation Systems Ltd (STS) switches its attention to the NT.

From 1993 to 1998 it investigates establishing a commercial spaceport using Russian Proton rockets as the launch vehicle.

STS considers launching from Melville Island or Gunn Point, near Darwin, but finally withdraws from attempts to develop a spaceport when it is unable to secure supplies of the Proton launcher.

Equatorial Launch Australia proposes Arnhem Space Centre, Australia’s first commercial launch facility.

Arnhem Space Centre will be located just outside of the town of Nhulunbuy in the Territory’s East Arnhem Land, and will be developed in partnership with the Gumatj Corporation (owned by one of East Arnhem’s Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups).

The Centre for Appropriate Technology’s (CfAT) wholly owned commercial subsidiary CfAT Satellite Enterprises partners with global communications company Viasat for the development of a commercial satellite ground station at CfAT’s Heath Road premises in Alice Springs. The ground station will form part of Viasat’s global Real-Time Earth system providing low-latency, affordable remote sensing satellite data to paying users on demand.

SpaceX launches its Falcon Heavy rocket carrying COSMIC-2: six satellites with the purpose of improving weather forecasts and space weather monitoring. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology is a mission partner, and its Darwin facility, the Middle Point ground station, fulfils a crucial support role in sending command and control information to the satellite.

US space agency NASA plans to launch its 2020 suborbital sounding rocket campaign from Equatorial Launch Australia’s Arnhem Space Centre.

Last updated: 18 November 2019

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