NASA has overcome unusual challenges to collect all but one piece of the rocket launched from Arnhem Land on Monday morning, officials said.
Aboriginal rangers helped NASA locate parts of its recently-launched rocket
A local MP has raised concerns about where parts of the rocket landed
The company that runs the launch pad has denied any safety issues
Pieces of the suborbital sounding rocket were tracked as far as 220 kilometers from the launch pad near Nhulunbuy, from where it blasted off in the early hours of Monday morning.
Yolngu rangers assisted with recovery efforts and said the mission headed into some tough terrain.
“We’ve got buffaloes and snakes around, you have to be careful,” Djawa “Timmy” Burarrwanga, the managing director of Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, said.
Using a helicopter, NASA’s advanced mapping technology and Yolngu tracking knowledge, Mr Burarrwanga said the group was able to recover most of the rocket’s pieces.
“I think it’s very important to know what’s happening with the rockets, and environmentally see how [the space companies] look after the land,” Mr Burarrwanga said.
One final piece of the rocket has been located but was inaccessible this week due to prolonged poor weather.
Politician raises concerns
Amid the retrieval efforts, an Arnhem Land politician has raised questions about the safety of, and the consultation done prior to, the mission.
The concerns come just days out from NASA’s second launch.
Yingiya Guyula, the independent member for Mulka, which covers the new Arnhem Space Center where NASA is conducting launches, said he had “grave fears” about where the pieces of the rocket were ending up, including on Mimal land in central Arnhem Land.
“It was something that should’ve been looked at more carefully,” Mr Guyula said.
“Our concerns are about retrieving the rockets, and where they land.
“What are the steps when there are bits and pieces falling out of the sky, and how safe is it to land in an area?
“There are people out there who live on the land, they hunt and move along that area. Like I’ve been saying time and time again, Arnhem Land is not empty land.”
The Northern Territory parliamentarian said he believed more consultation should have been done with landowner groups down-range of the rocket launches prior to the recovery efforts taking place.
Mr Guyula said he did not have a problem with business development in Arnhem Land but wanted proper processes to be followed.
ELA defends consultation
Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), the company behind the new spaceport, has staunchly defended the consultation process and dismissed Mr Guyula’s concerns about safety.
ELA’s chief executive Michael Jones said NASA and ELA had undertaken risk assessments and probability studies on the dangers and had been cleared by Australia’s regulatory authority.
“You have a better chance of one of the jets flying around in Australia flying down and hitting your house, a way higher probability, than having part of those rockets come to you,” Mr Jones said.
The body responsible for consulting with Aboriginal landowners about such matters, the Northern Land Council, said in a statement that it too believed the proper consultation work had been done.
“The NLC understands that ELA is engaging with Indigenous ranger groups across East Arnhem Land as part of the safety and retrieval processes in place for each launch,” a spokesman said.
“The NLC will, as a matter of course, conduct a review following the first series of launches.”
ELA said it has consulted with around 26 Northern Territory landowner groups and had also worked with local Indigenous broadcaster Yolngu Radio to get the message out in Yolngu Matha languages.
The company also said it had with Mr Guyula to discuss his safety concerns before he spoke to the ABC.
NASA’s next launch from the Arnhem Space Center is scheduled to take place at 8:24pm on Monday, July 4, and is expected to be visible from across the Gove Peninsula.