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Spaceports Around the World:
Australia's Woomera and Weipa Spaceports
Satellites have been blasted to space from Australia. On October 28, 1971, Great Britain became the sixth nation to launch an artificial moon to orbit above Earth. The satellite, named Black Knight 1, rode atop a rocket called Black Arrow in a launch from Woomera, Australia.
Woomera. This village with a population of 1,805 is a small town in the north of South Australia managed by the Australian Department of Defence. It was established in 1947 as a testing station for the British experimental rocket program. South Australia is home to the famous Outback, which contains 80 percent of the state's area, but less than 0.75 percent of its population.
Great Britain and Australia tested rockets on the firing range at Woomera from the end of World War II through the 1970's. Numerous rockets were launched, including the early Europa series. Woomera also operated as a NASA tracking station until 1972. The rocket testing range and the Nurrungar communications station are prohibited areas managed by the Defence Department.
More recently, the Australian Space Council has been considering the possibility of new launch pads at Woomera as well as at Weipa and Darwin. Sparsely populated Woomera has useful infrastructure, is usually cloud free, and would be a good location for access to polar orbits.
Darwin. Unlike the empty desert area around Woomera, this capital of the Northern Territory is a bustling tropical city clustering around the beaches of Darwin Harbour
Weipa. Weipa is on the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland. Cape York is the most northerly tip of Australia and a four-day four-wheel-drive trip from Cooktown through some of the most rugged sandy and wooded country in Australia. One of the world's last rainforest wildernesses, the unexplored domain is accessed via rugged dirt roads which cross several rivers that often swell and close the roads during the wet season.
The Queensland state government has been putting a lot of energy into promoting space launches from Weipa, Australia, trading the excellent climate in the remote, northern, sparsely-populated 4,000-square-mile Cape York Peninsula -- including its overpopulation of crocodiles -- for a slice of the worldwide spaceflight launching pie.
It's certainly a low-overhead area at the moment. And it probably can guarantee longer life in space for satellites since it's only about 15 degrees below the equator. An orbiting stationary satellite, which had been launched from Cape York Peninsula, would need 120 lbs. less fuel to maintain its orbit. That would mean a couple of years more working life in space.
The premier of Queensland, calling the weather at Weipa as near perfect as one could want, said that should be attractive to governments and private companies who could replace Mother Nature's local environment with steel towers, concrete runways and hotels.
In the early 1990s, Australia organized a Cape York Space Agency to develop a Queensland launch facility. A Queensland University scientist said spaceport operators could earn millions of dollars in profits, even after the expense of moving the crocodiles elsewhere.
Meeting resistance. However, thousands of Aborigines who call tropical Cape York Peninsula home disagreed with the premier of Queensland. They campaigned against the proposed launch site, calling it a "second invasion" of their country.
The spaceport is backed by the government of Australia and the state of Queensland, but the Wuthathi and Kuku Yau communities of Aborigines said the launch site was planned in Tokyo, Moscow and Washington, without consideration for local land rights.
The local Cape York Aboriginal Land Council used legal means to stop the development. Wuthathi people are traditional Aborigine owners of the outlying land on the east coast of Cape York Peninsula.
Japanese shuttle landings. Japan, with ambitious plans for its Hope space shuttle to carry freight to the International Space Station, had been thinking about landing the shuttle at Weipa.
The name Hope is short for H-2 Orbiting Plane. H-2 is a Japanese powerful space rocket. However technical setbacks have delayed plans to shoot the Hope shuttle to orbit atop an H-2.
Pacific Spaceport Group is an organization formed by Japan's seven largest companies. It wanted to build a six-mile-long runway, plus launch towers and control buildings for the Hope shuttle at the Weipa spaceport. The Japanese government would have to spend billions to build rockets and ground facilities.
Russian spaceport. In addition, Russia would like to go into the business of ferrying U.S. satellites to orbit from Weipa on Zenit rockets. The Zenit is a medium-lift booster, which could do the job if only the Aborigines would have permitted United Technologies Corp. of Hartford, Connecticut, to build a spaceport on their Cape York lands.
The U.S. government had informally approved start of the construction project, after the project had been held up by questions of transferring U.S. technology to Russia. Some 70 USBI workers were to have designed the spaceport for the Cape York Space Agency (CYSA), then 300 would have supervised construction of the base in northern Queensland and 200 would have managed the launch site on Australia's northernmost tip.
Zenit. The plan was for Russia's commercial space agency, Glavkosmos, to sell rockets to CYSA and supply engineers to handle launches, but not share in ownership of the spaceport. Zenits would have ferried satellites to space from Cape York for customers from around the world, including the United States.
The $500 million Cape York venture would have been backed by an Australian real estate developer and would not have received government money. It would have increased competition for American rocket makers, already competing with Europe and China for launch business.
Secret Space Base. Meanwhile, across the continent from Weipa, Australia and the United States operate a secret satellite communications and control base at the old British-Australian rocket testing range near Nurrungar, 300 miles northwest of Adelaide in the state of South Australia.
Great Britain and Australia tested rockets on the range there at Woomera from the end of World War II through the 1970's. Word of the secret space center slipped out in 1988 while the Australian Broadcasting Corp. was making a documentary on the town of Woomera.
Australia's Defense Department then publicized photographs of the space-tracking center, showing a close-up of an antenna at the station inside a protective radome, an outside shot of a radome, and a wide angle view of three radomes and buildings.
A radome is a protective covering over a radar antenna which does not interfere with signals to and from an antenna inside.
Three sites. Nurrungar is a Joint Defense Space Communications Station, one of three shared bases in Australia. The others are at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, Northern Territory, and North-West Cape, Western Australia.
News reports indicated Nurrungar controled U.S. infrared early-warning and arms control verification satellites which observed Russian missile launches. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Australian prime minister Bob Hawke acknowledged Nurrangar gave early warning of ballistic missile launches and nuclear detonations, while the satellite ground station at Pine Gap received intelligence data.
Nurrungar. Nurrungar is a relic of the Cold War in which it served as an early-warning system against a massive Soviet nuclear attack. It then became a key Allied warning link in the Persian Gulf War, detecting Scud missiles as Iraq lobbed them at Israel and Saudi Arabia.
During the Gulf War, infrared sensors in a U.S. Defense Support Program (DSP) satellite over the Indian Ocean scanned Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia, Asia and Southeast Asia, and Australia.
Heat from the exhaust of any rocket launch was spotted within seconds by the sensors. That triggered the DSP satellite to send down an alert to Nurrungar. Within a minute of blast off, 500 Australian and U.S. technicians could pinpoint a rocket's origin within three nautical miles, calculate its trajectory and determine its target.
The information would have been rushed to commanders, providing time for air-raid warnings. Location of a launch site was used for search-and-destroy missions.
Pine Gap. In central Australia, Pine Gap uses an extraordinarily-sensitive eavesdropping satellite to monitor two-way radio and other communications. The satellite's receivers are so sensitive, it is said they can hear low-power handheld portable radios during Russian military exercises.
In the Persian Gulf War, the base reportedly was tuned to Iraqi military signals to see which stations had been knocked out.
As one of 28 nations in the coalition against Iraq, Australia sent three ships to the Gulf. Meanwhile, back in Australia, the secret satellite ground stations were under U.S. command.
Other American satellite receiving stations dot the globe, including secret listening posts at Fort Meade, Maryland; Bad Aibling, West Germany; and Menwith Hill, Great Britain.
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