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INSIGHT: Josh Heyman
Australia's Space Effort... A Stop/Start Affair

by Jos Heyman, Tiros Space Information

Australia’s involvement in the so called ‘space race’ has been one of many false starts and has put the country in a position where it really does not play a significant role in the global exploration and commercialization of space.

How it got to this state of affairs, is a story of “been there, done that,” as well as missed opportunities due to bad government decisions. With the advent of the space age, Australia was involved in four different space programs:
  • European Launcher Development Organisation
  • British Black Arrow test program
  • United States tracking networks
  • Australia’s own initial space effort, resulting in the launch of Wresat in 1967
True, in the Wresat early involvement, Australia’s role was little more than that of a large rocket range, but it could have been the starting point of something big had the Australian governments not, deliberately, decided to move away from the space effort. What is more remarkable is that over the years Australia renewed its involvement in space several times, only to be cut short again by government decisions.

After the second World War, Great Britain needed a test facility to experiment with its newly found (V-2) rockets, its guided missiles, and the missiles for the nuclear weapons that were all on the drawing boards. The open desert space of Australia was, from a geographical point of view, very attractive for these experiments, while Australia’s sentiment and political inclinations were, in those days, very much towards the Empire and its allies. From the Australian perspective, there was also a distinct need to become involved in these advanced weapons. The lack of modern weapons during the second World War, and the failure of the Allies to supply Australia with these weapons, had created a strong desire to become independent from weapons supplied by other countries.

In 1946, a site in South Australia was selected. Designated Woomera, the site was in the desert region north of Adelaide, with a significant downrange across the continent, consisting of deserts. The site was also conveniently located near the port facilities of Adelaide as well as the former Salisbury munitions factory and the Edinburgh air force base. Australia took part in the experiments as a full partner and established a number of organizations which, in 1955, were amalgamated to form the Weapons Research Establishment (WRE).

Over the years, a variety of guided missiles were tested until, in the early sixties, the Black Knight experimental missiles were to be tested. For this, it was necessary to further extend the range and, in particular, it was necessary to establish a network of roads in the downrange area. These roads were drawn across the continent and several, such as the Gunbarrel Highway, continue to exist these days.

On the Western Australian coast, where the missiles were expected to impact, a large area was reserved for the planned Talgara township, although the town never materialized. A further impact area was 2400 km into the Indian Ocean, near Christmas Island. In those days, the island was dominated by the Royal Australian Air Force, which had a base there. Between September 7, 1957, and November 25, 1965, a total of 22 Black Knight flights occurred from Woomera.

Woomera was also used to launch sounding rockets in sub-orbital programs, and the Special Anti-missile Research Tests, Australia (Sparta) program was one of these. This late sixties program, in which the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia participated, studied the physical phenomena associated with the re-entry of objects at high velocity into the Earth atmosphere. A number of sub-orbital flights were conducted from Woomera using Redstone missiles provided by the United States. The flights carried various shaped re-entry bodies, which were to re-enter the atmosphere at a speed of 6 km/sec. The re-entering bodies were observed with radar equipment, cameras, photometers, and spectrometers. The basic Redstone rocket was modified with the addition of solid fuelled second and third stages which took the re-entry bodies to an altitude of 360 km. For these tests, a separate launch pad was constructed at Woomera and the Weapons Research Establishment provided support operations. Between November 26, 1966, and October 31, 1967, a total of nine flights were conducted.

Start 1: WRESAT
Towards the completion of the Sparta program, the rocket was made available to Australia. Australia’s first space program had begun. Hastily, the University of Adelaide, in cooperation with the Weapons Research Establishment, developed, at a cost of just $250,000, a satellite which was an integral part of the third stage of the Sparta vehicle. Designated Weapons Research Establishment Satellite (Wresat), it was launched from the Woomera site on November 29, 1967, and placed in a 193 x 1259 km orbit with an inclination of 83.4 degrees. The 84 kg satellite studied the solar radiation flux in wavelengths which directly influence the temperature structure at heights above 300 km, in order to understand the mechanism of the heat balance between solar and terrestrial radiation. The satellite carried three ultra-violet ion chambers, an X-ray counter, a solar aspect sensor, a magnetometer, an ozone sensor, and a Lyman-alpha telescope. The satellite ceased operations, as planned, after five days.

The program managers and scientists had plans for a series of Wresat satellites for which Redstone launch vehicles would have to be purchased from the United States. But none of these plans materialized, due to a lack of government funding and interest — Australia’s first space program was over.

Start 2: European Connection
The Europa series of launch vehicles was developed for the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO), which was established in 1964 to provide an independent launch vehicle for European countries. Australia was a member of ELDO. Using the facilities at Woomera, 10 launches were undertaken between June 5, 196,4 and June 12, 1970. A further flight was conducted from Kourou on November 5, 1971, before further development was cancelled on April 27, 1973, due to increasing technical difficulties and escalating cost. In addition to the Woomera facility, where the Lake Hart launch pad (originally built for Blue Streak missile use), Australia contributed a tracking station at Gove, in northern Australia.

In addition to its contribution to the development of the Europa launch vehicle in the form of the Blue Streak first stage, the United Kingdom developed the Black Arrow launch vehicle. The Black Arrow was an outgrowth of the Black Knight missile developed by the British Hovercraft Corporation. Although this was a British and not an Australian program, Australia was heavily involved, as the facilities at Woomera were used to launch four Black Arrow flights between June 28 and October 20, 1971, before further development was cancelled. As the consequence of its involvement in the ELDO program, Australia was offered membership of the European Space Agency, but the offer was declined.

The next all Australian effort was Oscar-5, the first radio amateur satellite sponsored by the Amsat Corporation. Development commenced in 1966 by student radio amateurs at the University of Melbourne and the satellite was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in the United States as a secondary payload, on January 23, 1970, in an orbit of 1435 x 1481 km with an inclination of 102.0 degrees. This was the first Oscar to employ bar-magnet stabilization to prevent tumbling and it carried the first amateur satellite telecommand system. The satellite was mainly used for educational purposes and was designed only to transmit on the 28 MHz and 144 MHz bands for the study of ionospheric effects at a time approaching maximum sunspot activity. The 18 kg satellite remained operational for 46 days.

In 1977, a formal report to the Australian Government recommended the use of a space based communications system to provide communication facilities to the entire continent. It was correctly suggested by experts that the vastness of the Australian continent and the lack of an appropriate communications infrastructure were conditions which could only be solved using satellite technology, in order that all Australians, irrespective of their place of residence, would have access to the same telecommunications facilities. This resulted in the establishment of a task force and, following experiments with the Canadian CTS communications satellite in 1978, led, in 1979, to a government decision in favor of a communications satellite system.

Aussat was established in 1981 as a government body owned by the Government and Telecom, the latter also government owned, to operate the system. The first of three first generation satellites was launched on August 27, 1985.

The first generation satellites were based on the Hughes HS-376 spacebus and the satellites carried 15 transponders operating in the 14/12 GHz band. Services were initially directed at remote areas in the outback.

Plans for the next generation of satellites were made in the late eighties and the second generation of satellites were also ordered from Hughes. By then, Aussat had been sold to Optus, the second (and privately owned) communications organisation in Australia. The focus of the system had been changed to provide new customer services, such as mobile communications and pay television.

The third and fourth series of Optus satellites, Optus C and D, followed at a later date, by which time ownership of Optus had been transferred to interests in Singapore.

Start 3: The COSSA, ASO, ASC eras
In spite of the fact that Australia did not have a space program during the early seventies, scientists and engineers, against all odds, continued to operate at a below-government level and kept the candle burning with a range of projects. Some of these projects found their way to the U.S. as payloads for satellites.

Australia has a traditional expertise in astronomy. As a result of this, Australia became, in 1979, involved in the Starlab project, conducted with the United States and Canada. Starlab was to be a free flying space platform to be placed in orbit by the Space Shuttle for periods of six to twelve months at a time. It would have carried a camera providing high resolution imagery over a very large field of view, an ultra-large format photon counting array and a multi-purpose spectrograph for the extended study of selected astronomical sources. The first launch was planned for the 1990/91 period, but the program faltered after Canada withdrew its support.

The proposed Mirrabooka-1 satellite was to have been launched in the 1986/88 period and would have been based on the Spartan spacebus. It would have carried an X-ray telescope and was to have been deployed from the Space Shuttle. A further development, known as Mirrabooka-2, envisaged a free flying and re-usable platform to place payloads into orbit. Mirrabooka, incidentally, is an aboriginal word for Southern Cross.

To provide some coordination in the space involvement of the various divisions of the Government, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) established the CSIRO Office of Space Science and Applications (COSSA) was in 1984. To build on the excellent efforts initiated by COSSA, the Government established the Australian Space Office (ASO) in 1987 to actively encourage the development of a local space industry and commercial space activities which were internationally competitive. The ASO was also to create an innovative environment by encouraging greater involvement of local industry in space research and development activities.

One of the ASO’s first projects was the Endeavour payload which used the large photon counting array originally proposed for Starlab. The payload, which was completed by the Australian space industry in 1988, was flown on the STS-42 mission of January 22, 1992, after having been delayed by the Challenger disaster.

Using two Getaway canisters, Endeavour provided the Australian space industry with experience and the actual scientific payload took a secondary position, which was evidenced by the fact that, while the experiments required a flight in which the payload bay would face outer space, the STS-42 payload bay faced towards Earth — no scientific results were obtained. ASO was heavily criticized for allowing Endeavour to fly on that mission instead of waiting until a mission with a better flight profile became available — the decision, however, was outside Australian control. The payload was placed in storage and was reflown on STS-67 on March 2, 1995, with better scientific results. Not all efforts of participation were successful. Like Starlab, Australian participation in the Lyman Far Ultraviolet Spectrum Explorer, fell by the wayside due to matters beyond Australian control.

The ASO also became involved in the Cape York Spaceport project, which envisaged the establishment of a commercial launch site for Soviet Zenit launch vehicles. This project, which was first mooted in 1980, included the development of a seaport and an airstrip and was expected to commence commercial launches in 1995 with an eventual launch rate of five per year. The project, which changed hands several times, failed to materialise as a result of a lack of financial sponsors. It was also hampered by environmental and aboriginal tribal concerns, while the general downturn in the space industry may also have been a contributing factor.

The ASO was also instrumental, and more successful, in establishing a number of Space Industry Development Centres (SIDC), which combined the research skills of the universities with commercial partners, establishing competitive intellectual property. Centres were established in Adelaide and Brisbane and one of these was involved in signal processing, navigation and position location technology, as well as microwave technology.

In 1988, proposals were made by Australian Launch Vehicle Pty. for a launch vehicle that would have had a launch capability of 500 kg into low-Earth orbit. The vehicle would have been a two-stage vehicle using solid fuel. The length would be approximately 22m, of which the first stage would have been 12m. It would have used the Cape York facility. Because of an excessive reliance on imported components, the project lost its commercial viability and did not materialise. Neither did a Southern Launch Vehicle proposal made by British Aerospace (Australia) get off the drawing board.

In spite of the modest successes by the Australian Space Office, the Government passed the Australian Space Council Act in 1994, establishing the Australian Space Council to replace the Australian Space Office as a move towards a more comprehensive national space program. Consisting of representatives of the industry, the scientific community, and the Government, the task of the Council was to advise the Minister and advance a rolling, five year space plan.

The first plan was published in July 1994 and recommendations included a proposal for Australia to launch two satellites. However, the Government of the day decided, in the context of the 1995/96 budget, to initiate a review of the National Space Program, which had originally been planned for 1997 forward to 1995. Funding was continued for the program during 1995/96, but funding for 1996/97 was subject to the Government’s consideration of a further review. The decision to freeze funding beyond 1995/96 had a constricting effect on expenditure under the National Space Program and eventually precluded decisions on long term initiatives and the Australian Space Council concept and its National Space Program disappeared from the scene.

Start 4: FEDSAT
In spite of the fact that the Australian Space Council had been ‘put to rest,’ the government of the day announced a new direction for the Australian space effort on August 29, 1996. This new effort involved the launching of a satellite during the centenary of Federation in 2001. The microsatellite program, known as FEDSAT, was undertaken by the Cooperative Research Centre for Satellite Systems (CRCSS), a branch of the CSIRO organization.

The 50 kg micro satellite, which was eventually launched on December 14, 2002, was to provide hands-on-experience in space science and technology for those involved, providing a skilled resource base for follow-on space projects whilst at the same time stimulating the development of a commercial market and maintaining the public interest. But, due to lack of funding, there was no follow-up to FEDSAT and, with the benefit of hindsight, the effort was a waste of time and resources.

As a separate and commercial effort, the Australian Resources Information and Environment Satellite (ARIES) was proposed. The 400 kg satellite was to carry an imaging spectrometer with visible and near-infrared and shortwave infrared capabilities. To be launched in 1999, it would have been be placed in a sun synchronous orbit of 500 km altitude and will provide users with data for mineral exploration, resource mapping and environmental monitoring.

Launch Facilities
Interest in Australia as a location for one or more launch sites continued. Over the years, proposals for launch facilities at Woomera, Cape York, Darwin, Eucla in Western Australia, and Christmas Islands (Indian Ocean) have been made, but all of them lapsed due to a lack of funding. It has been suggested that some of the launch proposals failed as a result of a lack of commitment from the Australian government.

Satellite Proposals
In spite of the lack of a national space program, the scientific and educational communities continued their space efforts. A typical example that actually resulted in a satellite was Westpac, a 24 kg geodetic satellite with a mass of 24 kg that was based on the Russian GFZ-1 satellite and was used by the Western Pacific Laser Tracking Network (WPLTN). It was launched via a Zenit 2 launch vehicle from Baikonour on July 10, 1988.

The Basic Low Earth orbit UNSW Educational Satellite (BLUESat) is a microsatellite project undertaken at the University of New South Wales. It was first proposed in 1997 and went into a research phase in 1998, followed by the first designs in 1999. Progress remains slow, mainly due to limited funding as well as a flow-through of participants.

In 2007, Australian space scientists proposed the development of a spacecraft to learn about the sun’s corona and the origin of solar winds. Designated as Sundiver, the spacecraft could be powered by Australian-made plasma thrusters to get it within three to four solar radii of the sun before it stops sending data back to Earth and burns up.

The Australian Space Research Institute (ASRI), a non-profit research organization run entirely by volunteers, came about in the early 1990s through a merger of the Australian Space Engineering Research Association (ASERA) and a group at the Monash University in Melbourne that was interested in developing a launch vehicle labelled as Ausroc. Although run as a company limited by guarantee, ASRI does not have employees, has very limited resources, and does not offer courses that lead towards qualifications. Nevertheless, ASRI does have a close collaboration with a number of Australian educational institutions, including the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Queensland University of Technology, University of Queensland, and the University of Technology in Sydney.

Its previous activities included the development of an amateur satellite designated as VKSat. The satellite, based on the AMSAT microsat, was to be fitted with the Australian built Integrated Remote Imaging System, but the satellite never materialized. One of the other activities ASRI continues to undertake is the launching of Zuni rockets from Woomera. These rockets, originally surface to air missiles, had been donated to ASRI by the Royal Australian Air Force to be used to launch educational payloads into a sub-orbital trajectory. Launches are conducted twice a year from Woomera, South Australia.

In 1990, ASRI started the development of a very light launch vehicle under the designation Ausroc. The first test, using Ausroc 1, was conducted successfully on February 9, 1989, at the Puckapanyal Army Camp weapons firing range and the rocket achieved an altitude of 4 km in an 8 seconds flight. Ausroc 1 had a length of 2.6m and was propelled by a furfuryl alcohol/nitric acid motor which provided a thrust of 1274 N for 8 seconds.

The first test flight of the much larger Ausroc 2, conducted on November 17, 1992, at Woomera, met with failure. A further flight of Ausroc 2 took place with limited success on May 26, 1995, when an altitude of 1.8 km was achieved (instead of 9 km) and a distance of 3 km (instead of 25 km). Ausroc 2 had a length of 5.6m and was fuelled by kerosene and liquid oxygen with a thrust of 9810 N for 20 seconds. An improved vehicle, designated Ausroc 2.5, is scheduled for launch in mid 2010.

Ausroc 3 and 4 are projects currently being developed by ASRI. Ausroc 3 is a liquid fuelled sounding rocket that will be capable to place a 150 kg payload into a 500 km sub-orbital trajectory. The vehicle will have active guidance so that its trajectory can be controlled during the flight. The payload module will have a 6 minutes period of weightlessness before it will re-enter with a steerable gliding parachute recovery system. The first launch is planned for mid 2011.

Ausroc 4 is a further development in which five clustered Ausroc 3 vehicles will provide an orbiting capability for a 10 kg small satellite. Four of the clustered rockets will serve as a first stage whilst the fifth rocket, in the core, will serve as the second stage. On top of this will be a solid fuelled third stage. The first flight is planned for mid 2012. While in the first instance the ASRI activities are intended to advance education, technology and industry development, the capability and hardware being developed through the program may have commercial application.

Start 5: The Future
It is unlikely that the future of the Australian space effort will be a spectacular one. In the Asia Pacific region, Australia now faces strong and real competition in the space effort from its Asian neighbors, countries where the governments actively support the emerging space industry. A parliamentary enquiry conducted in 2008 recommend a step-by-step approach towards re-establishing an Australian space agency. But to what extent the recommendation will eventually result in a space agency remains an outstanding question. As far as is known, the recommendation does not yet have government endorsement. And if the government endorses it and decides to take positive action, there are many points on the path of progress where the government can cop out for whatever reason they deem suitable.

The report does not recommend a time frame and it could be years before we can see the establishment of an Australian Space Agency. Others have suggested that Australia does not require a primary space industry, but rather a secondary space industry which comprises the involvement in multi-national consortiums to build spacecraft components, marketing our expertise in remote sensing, and so on. Whatever direction is taken, such will require the involvement of government at a higher degree than current commitments. This would be needed to ensure such efforts are sustained by government funding and do not become further ‘dead ends.’ As government involvement is, as a rule, driven by public perception, it is also essential that an active space awareness program be successfully conducted.