‘Disappointing’ start to Australia’s private space race as rocket misfires at Koonibba

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“Disappointed” was the word of the day after Australia’s much-awaited first private rocket launch failed at an Aboriginal community on South Australia’s far west coast.

But space industry companies Southern Launch and DEWC are confident they will still see a launch by the end of this week.

A crowd of more than 200 at the Koonibba Aboriginal community was counting down until lift-off when Southern Launch chief executive Lloyd Damp announced there had been a misfire.

“We ignited the rocket motor but the rocket itself, the propellant, didn’t ignite,” Mr Damp said.

“This is one of the things we’ve been training for and practising for the last few days.

A man looks at a laptop computer in a tent
The control room for the Koonibba rocket launch.(ABC News: Stacey Lee)

“We’ll unpack the rocket, work out what went wrong, and we might be back as early as tomorrow to try again.

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Koonibba Aboriginal School students who came to watch said they were disappointed.

“We just came out here for six and a half hours for no reason,” one boy said.

DEWC, whose slogan is “electronic warfare is our passion”, is developing satellites that will be capable of detecting potentially dangerous radar signals from enemy forces.

It was the first company to team up with Southern Launch to test launching processes.

A small device was meant to be deployed at the edge of space on Tuesday.

The payload’s purpose was to collect information with its built-in sensors as it fell back to Earth to assist with DEWC’s development of satellite technology.

Children in front of an old school building
Koonibba Aboriginal School students were excited in the lead-up to the rocket launch.(ABC News: Evelyn Leckie)

‘Our mission will go ahead’

DEWC chief executive Ian Spencer said although the misfire was a little disappointing, he was glad it was “out of the way”.

“I don’t think it’s a real rocket launch activity unless we have at least one failure to launch,” Mr Spencer said.

“Our mission will go ahead and I’m sure we’ll get a launch out of it this week.”

People sit on chairs and the ground under a blue sky
A crowd turned up to watch the rocket launch but left disappointed.(ABC News: Evelyn Leckie)

Mr Spencer said DEWC was partway through designing satellites that would help the Australian Defence Force.

“We’re taking some of the information that we were going to learn this week to incorporate into some of our software,” he said.

“That’s on track and ahead of schedule. We expect to deliver that concept demonstrator next year.

“If we’re fortunate enough, we’ll be able to push that through in 18 months.

‘Next step’ in the space industry

Royal Australian Air Force Group Captain Tobyn Bearman said the air force was interested in supporting DEWC and Southern Launch in experimenting with the “next step” of sensors that were built into the rocket’s payload.

“These are next-generation sensors that we’re exploring — what they can provide in terms of information from the upper atmosphere and how we can use that information to improve our situational awareness on the battlefield,” Group Captain Bearman said.

A man wearing a jacket and baseball cap speaks to other men the same under a canopy
SA Premier Steven Marshall (left) speaks to DEWC chief executive Ian Spencer (second from right) at the Koonibba rocket launch site.(ABC News: Evelyn Leckie)

SA Premier Steven Marshall put a positive spin on the event.

“With innovation like this, there are often lots of steps which are taken. There will be another attempt for a launch again,” he said.

“This will be the first commercial space company rocket launch in Australia ever.

“All of the previous launches have been government launches, so it is a historic time and I think this is really a taste of what’s to come in Australia.”

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