Space buffs and curious tourists could one day watch rockets taking off from the remote Northern Territory if an Australian company's bold future vision for its new spaceport comes to fruition.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Wednesday announced US space giant NASA would be firing three suborbital sounding rockets from the north-east Arnhem Land site during June and July this year.
It will be the first time NASA has fired rockets from Australian soil in more than a quarter of a century.
Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), the start-up firm running the new Arnhem Land spaceport NASA will use, began in 2015 and, seven years later, looks ready to take off.
ELA's general manager Russell Shaw said the NASA launches – the first of which is scheduled for June 26 – marked just "the start line" for its fledgling Arnhem Space Centre.
"We have plans to significantly grow the facility, to have more launch pads and be able to attract several more international customers as a commercial, multi-user spaceport," Mr Shaw said.
Mr Shaw said the company was also exploring the space centre's potential to attract tourists, both Australian and international, keen to witness a rocket launch firsthand.
"We think as we increase the frequency of launches, we're going to get a lot more tourists wanting to come up and actually look at these rockets," he said.
"We think there's definitely an opportunity for that down the track, and, as the site gets bigger, clearly there are several vantage points in town where we'll be able to see rockets."
Industry could see flow-on effects
Australian National University astrophysicist Dr Brad Tucker said ELA's success in securing a customer as high-profile as NASA was a huge moment for the nation's burgeoning space industry.
"To have a customer like NASA … they don't often do something like this," Dr Tucker said.
"So, the fact that they are going to do it, it's just a validation for what the market and the development is here in Australia of this new industry, relatively speaking."
The ANU space expert, who will be heading to East Arnhem Land to watch NASA's first launch, said ELA's plans for a future expansion were "very plausible".
"When they say that they want to have dozens of launches in the next few years, you can kind of believe it now [that NASA is locked in]," he said.
"I think the vision of building [the spaceport] into a full suite, so to speak – of rockets, visitors and the public – is exactly what everyone wants."
'Australia should be proud': Gumatj CEO
The Arnhem Space Centre sits on land owned by the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land, so any expansion plans would require the backing of the area's traditional owners to go ahead.
So far, the centre has received enthusiastic support from the region's powerful Gumatj clan, which has facilitated its development and construction, to get off the ground.
Gumatj Corporation CEO Klaus Helms described the creation of the new space centre, which sits adjacent to the corporation's Gulkula bauxite mine, as a "proud moment for the Gumatj people".
"Because it shows that we still have the capacity to start something from zero, ground up, and to be associated with someone that NASA has the trust in to even invest in, and launch from this site.
"So, it's not just the Gumatj, it's not just the Indigenous people: Australia should sort of look up and say, 'Hey, this is big for us as Australia, to be back in the space industry, in a very large way'."
The Arnhem Space Centre marks something of a full circle for north-east Arnhem Land.
Through the 1960s and 70s, the European Launcher Development Organisation had satellite trackers based in the East Arnhem bush that clocked the movements of rockets blasted from a launch site in Woomera, in the South Australian outback.