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Equatorial Launch Australia unveils aim to secure Arnhem Land space launch in 2023

A rocket could be blasted into space from the remote Northern Territory before the end of the year, but exactly who will be launching it remains up in the air.

Australian space company Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA) runs the Arnhem Space Centre, from where three sub-orbital sounding rockets were fired by US space giant NASA in 2022.

They marked NASA's first launches on Australian soil in more than a quarter of a century.

ELA has revealed its ambitious hope to launch another rocket from the site in the second half of 2023, "dependent on the launch vehicle customer and the application permit process".

Executive chairman Michael Jones said the company was "in discussions with many parties from around the world" to try to secure the spaceport's next launch.

"At this stage an orbital launch in the second half of 2023 is still our goal," he said in a statement.

Orbital rocket pieces to 'stay in space'

If a rocket is fired from Arnhem Land this year, there could be a couple of major differences from the inaugural launches that took place over a two-month period in 2022.

ELA has said "the vast majority" of its potential customers were looking to undertake orbital launches – rockets that don't come back to earth after they're launched.

"Effectively there is no difference to people on the ground, albeit orbital launches tend to ascend slower than sounding rockets but both can be viewed from several kilometres away," Mr Jones said.

"The main difference between orbital and sub-orbital launches is that the payloads and later stages of orbital rockets stay in space whereas sub-orbital rockets have elements that come back to earth and don't stay in orbit."

A common use of such launches is to place satellites into orbit.

Last year's sub-orbital launches caused some consternation in Arnhem Land, after pieces of the rockets landed hundreds of kilometres down range of the space centre.

ELA has always maintained there was no safety risk to communities.

NASA unlikely to be involved in 2023

The company said, as negotiations were ongoing with potential clients, it wouldn't comment on which space firm might be interested in launching from the NT this year.

However, Mr Jones did indicate that NASA was unlikely to be involved.

"NASA has indicated a keenness to return, however, it is based on scientific requirements and as such we think it is likely to return in 2025-26," Mr Jones said.

The NT government, one of ELA's major investment partners, voiced its confidence in an Arnhem Land launch or launches going ahead this year.

Acting Chief Minister Nicole Manison said: "2023 should see more rocket launches from the Arnhem Space Centre to continue the accelerated growth of the NT space industry and create job opportunities and economic growth for the region".

The Australian Space Agency also said it was plausible ELA could facilitate an orbital launch this year.

The Commonwealth agency's chief technology officer, Aude Vignelles, said the moment would mark a significant milestone for the nation's space industry.

"Since '71 we haven't launched anything from Australia into orbit," Ms Vignelles said.

"Whoever is going to achieve the first [modern] launch into orbit in Australia is going to enter in history, without a doubt."

ELA's latest launch ambitions come as the company faces a lawsuit for unfair dismissal by its former chief executive, Carley Scott, who has also made a series of bullying allegations against Mr Jones.

The company is also counter-suing Ms Scott over a number of matters.

Mr Jones said there was likely to be a directions hearing in the coming months, and revealed that ELA was also "considering additional legal actions against Ms Scott".

He has previously said he was planning on pursuing defamation action against his predecessor, after she made claims in court documents that Mr Jones had made racist and sexist comments in the past.

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