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SA: Push against ‘Elon Musk’-style rocket launch site at Whalers Way


Tension is building over plans for a new “Elon Musk-style” rocket launch site for Australia’s budding space industry, with conservationists and Greens politicians moving to pressure state and federal governments to block the development.

The $20m complex on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula at Whalers Way would shoot rockets into high-inclination orbits, but environmentalists say the launches threaten endangered species, including the southern emu wren and southern right whale.

“It’s an incredibly beautiful area and to see it turn into an Elon Musk-style Space X industrial complex would be heartbreaking for the area and Australia in general,” Eyre Peninsula Environmental Protection Alliance member Athena Taylor said.

“We’re concerned essentially that it will irrevocably damage the environment of that area.”

South Australian Greens member Tammy Franks introduced a motion on Wednesday calling on Premier Peter Malinauskas to “safeguard” Whalers Way from the complex and commit to “zero extinctions” as a matter of priority.

The upper house motion comes as approvals for the complex, proposed by Adelaide space company Southern Launch, move through the government review process.

Planning Minister Nick Champion will determine the site’s fate at the state level and federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek will deliver the Commonwealth’s decision.

A South Australian government spokesman said Mr Champion was waiting on advice from the State Planning Commission before making his assessment.

“The commission’s findings will be detailed in an assessment report, which will assess these potential impacts along with the adequacy of the measures proposed by Southern Launch to manage and mitigate the impacts of any launches from the proposed launch site,” he said.

The federal government confirmed it was still assessing the proposal, with no clear indication of when a decision would be reached.

Ms Taylor said conservationists in the area were “really disappointed” in Labor’s refusal to date to reject the proposal.

“It (Whalers Way) is an incredibly important area in terms of South Australia and Australia’s conservation goals and the aspiration of the Labor Party to be not a party of extinction,” she said, adding her group was not opposed outright to rocket launches but to their development at Whalers Way.

“We’re calling on the government to put space in the right place.”

The complex is the only spaceport in Australia that supports polar and sun-synchronous launches and Southern Launch states it would elevate South Australia as a new centre for space manufacturing.

“The Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex is the anchor for the South Australian space industry and will cement our place as the space state of Australia,” Southern Launch chief operating officer Rebecca Darcey said.

“For each launch campaign from Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex we work with over 50 local Eyre Peninsula businesses and help inject over $1m into the local regional economy.”

The company has received approvals for test launches.

Ms Darcey also said independent environmental experts had concluded the complex’s impact on the environment would be “minimal.”

“From the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia to the Kennedy Space Centre to the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in India, study after study has found that launch noise disturbance to birdlife from rocket launches is minimal, with birds quickly resuming their normal activities after noise ceased,” she said.

Ms Darcey said the total footprint of the complex had been minimised to 23.4 hectares from a total land area of 1600 hectares.

“We will make use of previously cleared land and existing road infrastructure to ensure the amount of native vegetation removed is as minimal as possible,” she said.

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Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.