Conservationists say a plan to build a permanent rocket launch facility at Whaler’s Bay in South Australia could push threatened bird species to extinction.
Southern Launch, an Adelaide-based startup, operates the Whalers Way Orbital Launch Complex in a privately owned conservation area at the tip of the Eyre Peninsula.
The facility is expected to help grow the infant Australian space industry, with a temporary launchpad at the site hosting a test firing of the Hapith I sub-orbital rocket in September by Taiwanese company TiSPACE.
However, plans to build permanent facilities in the area have been challenged by environmental groups including the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia (NCSSA), which says the launch site will wipe out prime habitat for a sub-species of southern emu-wren, unique to the Eyre Peninsula, and the western whipbird.
When operating on a commercial scale, the site is expected to host 35 launches a year. The NCSSA president, Patrick O’Connor, said it will be “another nail in the coffin” for the threatened species.
“We’ve already lost more habitat than this [southern emu-wren] species can reasonably tolerate,” O’Connor said. “If we lose this site, it’s just a matter of time. They’ll either hang on in the state they’re in, but if a big site like Whaler’s Bay goes the risk is extinction.”
O’Connor, an ecologist with the University of Adelaide, said there was also a risk from bushfires which would be made worse by the possibility of mechanical malfunction.
The attempted launch of the Hapith-I rocket on 17 September ended when an internal fault caused the vehicle to catch fire. While TiSPACE has since retired the Hapith I rocket it still has permission to perform two further tests by the end of 2021.
Under Southern Launch’s current expansion plans, the project will involve the construction of two permanent launch pads and support infrastructure including assembly facilities, fuel storage tanks, power generators, offices, road transport access and blast houses.
The work will involve clearing 23.76 hectares (58.7 acres) of vegetation, the construction of firebreaks and access roads while the largest of two launch pads – currently known as “site A” – is planned for an area of prime habitat for the southern emu-wren.
In a statement, the Southern Launch chief executive, Lloyd Damp, said the company was aware of concerns about the impact on wildlife and was in the process of relocating the launch pad.
“These issues were brought forward by our ecology subject matter experts, with whom we are working closely with as part of our commitment to minimising the environmental impacts of our operations at Whalers Way,” Damp said.
“These experts have identified several suitable alternate areas and we are in the process of evaluating the relocation of launch site A to an alternative site preferred by our ecologists.”
The expansion is being reviewed by both the South Australian government and the federal environment department under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
PlanSA has yet to release the results of a community consultation that closed in September.
As the southern emu-wren and the western whipbird are on a threatened species list the proposal will also need to receive approval from the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, before it can go ahead.