WRESAT was Australia's first satelite, and its launch placed Australia as the seventh nation to have a satellite in space, and just the third country to launch its own satellite from its own territory – thanks to a little help from its friends.
It was launched from Woomera on 29th November 1967, at a time when the rocket test range in outback South Australia was a global hub for space research and home to thousands of British, American and Australian military personnel and civilians.
However, without the generosity of the United States and the quick work of scientists from the Adelaide-based Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) and the University of Adelaide, the project would have never left the ground.
The United States Defence Department brought 10 Redstone rockets to Woomera in the 1960s – nine for use in the SPARTA testing program and a spare. The Redstone started life as an American intermediate-range ballistic missile but it had also been used as the basis for America’s first satellite launcher, Explorer One.
Respected Australian space historian Kerrie Dougherty said that by the time they realised the spare rocket would not be needed because the other nine all worked, Redstone had been superseded as an operational missile so the Americans weren’t particularly interested in taking it home with them.
“The suggestion came about – and it’s not entirely clear if it was the Australians or the Americans who voiced the idea – that if there was this spare Redstone why don’t the Americans give it to Australia to be used as a satellite launcher,” Dr Dougherty said.
“A formal offer was made just before Christmas 1966 and the Americans also added that if Australia could develop its satellite before they went back to the United States at the end of 1967, they would do the launch program as the final part of the SPARTA program.
“That was something the Australians jumped at because it made the whole launch part of it a lot easier but it meant that WRESAT had to be designed, built, tested and ready for launch in 11 months so it was quite a significant achievement on Australia’s part even to get the satellite ready within that pretty short period of time.”
Because of the short time frame, the WRE and University of Adelaide decided to use the satellite to extend the upper atmosphere research it had been conducting with its sounding rockets.
Weighing 45kg, WRESAT completed 642 orbits and transmitted scientific information for 73 of these to tracking and research stations around the world. It re-entered the earth’s atmosphere and was destroyed by the resultant high temperature on 10 January 1968 over the Atlantic Ocean west of Ireland.
“It sent back quite a bit of good data on the different characteristics of the upper atmosphere and it correlated really well with the data they were getting from the sounding rocket programme,” Dr Dougherty said.
“None of it was earth shattering but it provided a lot of good data that corresponded with the sounding rocket program and it added to the broader knowledge of the conditions of the upper atmosphere and the bottom end of space.
“It demonstrated Australia had the capability technically and scientifically for developing a working satellite.”
The WRESAT project was led by Bryan Rofe from the WRE and Professor John Henry Carver, who was Elder Professor and Head of Physics at the University of Adelaide.
It has been a big year for the space industry in South Australia with the state’s capital Adelaide hosting the 68th International Astronautical Congress in September where it was announced that Australia would form its own space agency. It is also the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Woomera test range and township 500km north of Adelaide.
South Australia has used the new focus on space to establish a Space Industry Centre to coordinate space-related businesses and to administer a AU$1 million a year incubator and accelerator program for new space startups.
Earlier this year, a University of Adelaide-built satellite was launched by NASA from Cape Canaveral in Florida – one of three miniaturised ‘cubesats’ developed in Australia and the first Australian-built satellites launched in 15 years.