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Snapshot: Looking back at the history of space exploration in Australia

Updated: Jun 20, 2019

Ever wondered where we are and how we got here -- at least, in terms of space exploration and capability? In this World Space Week post, we discuss some of the many interesting facts and figures about Australia's contributions to space.


Amid much fanfare, Australia has recently announced that it will (at long last!) establish its own space agency. It may come as a surprise to many that Australia – which currently lags behind the world in terms of space technology and was (up until recently) the only OECD country without a space agency, was once a thriving player in the global space race. Today we’ll explore some of the shining and memorable moments in the history of Australia’s space activity.

The war and the rush for rockets

The worldwide interest in space activity started during World War II in the 1940s. Germany had pioneered the use of V2 rockets against the Allies. Apart from causing a lot of destruction (approx. 3000 attacks on Britain), these rockets started the Space Race. Every power in the world wanted to acquire space technology, primarily for strategic purposes; but later the technologies mastered during this era proved to be indispensable for civilian purposes. V2s, for instance, spurred the development of modern space launch vehicles, or rockets as we know them today.

Australia got its first space facility in Woomera, South Australia as a bid to provide Great Britain a safe place to test its rockets and weapons. After WWII, this facility also functioned as a civil space research center. Later, during the Cold War, Woomera held the record for second highest number of rocket launches after NASA’s Cape Canaveral facility (most of the launches from Woomera were for British and other European Space Agencies).

But Woomera isn’t just known for launching rockets. In 1967 Australia launched its first satellite WRESAT from this range, making Australia the third nation to build and launch a satellite on its own soil after the United States and the Soviet Union.

The age of tracking stations

The 1960s were very happening times for Australian space activity. Multiple tracking stations were built around the country, primarily because Australia had vast radio-noise-free areas and was located in the Southern Hemisphere. These tracking or ground stations were responsible for communicating with manmade objects in space via radio waves using antennas and radio dishes. A few of these stations deserve special mention.

The Parkes Radio Telescope. Credit: Tamsin Slater/Flickr

First and the most interesting one is the CSIRO Parkes Observatorybuilt in the small remote town of Parkes, NSW in 1969. It housed the second largest dish antenna in the southern hemisphere measuring 64 meters. It played a primary role in the telecommunication between NASA and the moon exploration Apollo missions. In fact, the live TV visuals of Apollo 11 landing on the moon and Neil Armstrong doing the first moonwalk were transmitted through Parkes. There is a great Hollywood documentary movie “The Dish” (2000) which tells this story in detail (with a pinch of fiction).

One other notable station is the Tidbinbillatracking station near Canberra. It was built in 1965 as a joint effort between Australia and the US. It has been serving as a communication and tracking point for a large number of NASA missions, including missions to Jupiter and Mars.

Universities get in on the action

In 1967 a few ambitious students at the University of Melbourne built Australia’s first amateur satellite, Australis-OSCAR 5 (AO 5). It was of the first amateur satellites in the world and the first one to be remotely controlled. AO 5was launched via the US launcher Thor Delta in California.

The year 1971 effectively marks the end of major government efforts in space research, as it was the last year a satellite was launched from Australian soil. Unfortunately, governments since then have viewed space capability as an expensive and unnecessary pursuit. However, with the recent miniaturisation of technology – meaning that tech can be done at cheaper rates – more Australian Universities began to undertake space-related research and projects. The Australian Space Research Institutewas founded in the early 1990s by a group of universities, namely: Monash, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and University of Technology in Sydney. They developed and tested small launch vehicles known as sounding rockets.

Soon after, the early 2000s then saw the development of the nano-satellite – and with it, the ability for research groups, students and small organisations to build their own satellites and have them launched into space.

An artist’s impression of UNSW-ECO in orbit. UNSW-ECO is one of the three Australian-built satellites in the QB-50 project. Credit: Extracted from an article in The Conversation. Original from UNSW, Author provided.

In Australia, groups such as BLUEsat at UNSWhave built their own CubeSat; the global QB-50project had three CubeSats developed by UNSW, University of Sydney, ANU and University of Adelaide, which were launched in 2017; and the CubeSat SkyHopper at the University of Melbourneis currently underway.

And of course, we’re planning to launch our inaugural CubeSat in the near future!

The present and the future

In more recent years, space activity and interest have been slowly building more and more. There are a number of conferences held around Australia that focus on space science, such as the Australian Space Research Conferenceand the CubeSat Innovation Workshop; as well as telescopes like the Square Kilometer Array, the Siding Spring Observatoryand the Mt Stromlo Observatory that all contributing significantly to space research and discovery. And Australian companies such as Fleetand Gilmour Space Technologieshave also made great headway in securing a $5 million investment each towards space science.

This year has been especially good for Australia's space capability. In February 2017 space was the focusof a Parliament session, and on 13 July 2017, the Australian government announced a review of Australia’s space industry capability. It was encouraging news for those in Australia's budding space sector -- and news that would soon be outdone by a bigger announcement made more recently.

On 25 September 2017, at the International Astronautical Congress 2017, the government announced the creation of Australia’s own national space agency. The prime purpose of this agency will be to support research and innovation in defence, telecommunication and environment. (We were ecstatic to be therefor such a big moment in Australian history!)

A national space agency is not only long overdue but will continue to build immensely upon Australian’s achievements in space technology, research and innovation. The future of Australia's space industry and capabilities is looking very bright!


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