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Field Notes: Nhulunbuy, Australia

Season 5Episode 6Mar 28, 2023

Tropical rainforests, snowy mountain peaks, even the Australian outback – NASA experts travel to a wide range of environments right here on Earth to better understand our universe. Miles Hatfield, NASA heliophysics science writer, recaps a recent reporting trip to cover a sounding rocket launch in Australia’s remote Northern Territories.

The cover art display for the NASA's Curious Universe podcast.

NASA's Curious Universe

Introducing NASA’s Curious Universe

Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. Join NASA astronauts, scientists, and engineers on a new adventure each episode — all you need is your curiosity. Explore the lifesaving systems of space suits, break through the sound barrier, and search for life among the stars. First-time space explorers welcome.

Episode Description:

Tropical rainforests, snowy mountain peaks, even the Australian outback – NASA experts travel to a wide range of environments right here on Earth to better understand our universe. Miles Hatfield, NASA heliophysics science writer, recaps a recent reporting trip to cover a sounding rocket launch in Australia’s remote Northern Territories.


[Song: Island Hopping by Brian Flores]

[[Sound of footsteps on pebbles, tape recorder clicking on and whirring]]

Miles Hatfield

Captain’s log. It seems like everything here is a deep hue of red. The iron in the soil and dirt really just coats everything. All the cars. You can tell who’s new. Those cars are still white. The people who’ve been here for a while have all been coated with a fine mist of red dust.

[[Sound of tape recorder clicking off]]

[Theme Song: Curiosity by SYSTEM Sounds]

HOST PADI BOYD: Welcome back to another “Field Notes” episode of NASA’s Curious Universe. NASA experts travel to some incredible places to learn more about our planet and the universe around us.

HOST PADI BOYD: Last summer, NASA science writer Miles Hatfield visited Nhulunbuy, Australia to cover a sounding rocket launch from a brand-new rocket range.

HOST PADI BOYD: You might remember sounding rockets from our season four episode “Up and Away with Sounding Rockets.” They’re small, uncrewed rockets that shoot off to orbit on short journeys. They study everything from our own atmosphere to the stars. Less than an hour after taking off, they come parachuting back to Earth with payloads of data collected during their flights.

[[Sound of seabirds, waves]]

HOST PADI BOYD: Let’s listen in with Miles as he prepares for and witnesses NASA’s first rocket launch from this brand new southern hemisphere launch site operated by Equatorial Launch Australia.

MILES HATFIELD: I’m Miles Hatfield. I’m a science writer here at NASA. I write about heliophysics, which is the science of the sun and the sun’s connections to everything around us in space.

MILES HATFIELD: Nhulunbuy was this little mining town. There was one grocery store. It did not look like what I thought Australia would look like. It was cloudy and rained a lot.

[[Sound of tape recording clicking on, whirring]]

Miles Hatfield

Nhulunbuy is at the northeastern tip of the northern territories in Australia, where the desert meets the sea.

Miles Hatfield

Nhulunbuy is not what you think of, or at least not what I think of, when I think of Australia. It’s much more like a tropical area.

Miles Hatfield

It’s at twelve degrees south latitude, which is one of the reasons it’s such a great site for a rocket range, because we’re so close to the equator, which gives rockets that are launching into orbit a little bit of extra orbital velocity.

[[Sound of tape recorder clicking off]]

MILES HATFIELD: So, we were there to film, but I was also there capturing audio for this show and we were trying to really make sure we captured the full story of all the pieces that have to go right to get a rocket up into space. So I was thinking a lot about like, how do I convey the feeling of this place in sound?

[[Sound of pebbles crunching underfoot]]

MILES HATFIELD: You hear this sort of crunch of the pebbles beneath your feet.

MILES HATFIELD: They look like Dippin Dots, you know the things you’d get at like a carnival or you go to, like, Six Flags or something. That’s what this place sounds like.

[Song: Austra Soul by Julien Baril]

MILES HATFIELD: This was the first launch from a commercial launch range outside of the United States for NASA.

MILES HATFIELD: The key reason we were in Australia, or key feature of the location of this launch range was that it was in the southern hemisphere.

MILES HATFIELD: Half the stars in the sky you can’t see from the northern hemisphere. If you want to do science that involves one of these stars, you have to launch from the southern hemisphere if you’re gonna do a sounding rocket launch.

MILES HATFIELD: It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, the least populated part of Australia, the Northern Territories, which is great if you’re going to be shooting things up to space and having them fall back down.

MILES HATFIELD: We did a bunch of research in advance to just learn about the groups involved in this launch range.

MILES HATFIELD: Aboriginal groups in Australia, especially in what they call the top end, which is where we were, they pay so much attention to the stars, and it’s really integrated into what’s called song lines. They are kind of like constellations, patterns of stars, but they’re woven together in a story that people will sing. And these song lines actually serve as a mnemonic for traveling. They’re like guideposts. They’re like directions.

MILES HATFIELD: When Europeans first came to Australia, they used Aboriginal groups as their guides. So they were following their paths. And those paths kind of stuck. So there’s some big highways, routes that go across Australia that still map onto the song lines. Sort of carved into the land now.

MILES HATFIELD: The range was built on Gutmatj clan land. Gutmatj is one of the clans in the Yolgnu nation. What we learned about is that the Gutmatjs are actually partners in this.

MILES HATFIELD: Gutmatj Corporation are who cleared the land and built a lot of the facilities, and they are the lease owners that Equatorial Launch Australia is paying for that land.

[Song: All Eyes On THe Markets Underscore by Green and Stone]

MILES HATFIELD: If you’ve ever gone to like Kennedy, or one of these, like, well established launch ranges, you’re gonna look at this, you’re gonna be like, “Where am I?” They basically set up a bunch of these little portable offices that are just sort of plopped down. They built a huge place that they called the PIF, the Payload Integration Facility. It’s this giant barn-like thing with scaffolding and plastic covering. Couple hundred yards away is the actual launcher, which is concrete. Other than that, it was dirt and trees. It was really minimalistic. It was like what do you need to launch a rocket and that’s what they put.

MILES HATFIELD: So I was there for about three weeks.

MILES HATFIELD: And luckily, the night before I had to leave, early in the morning, they launched.

[[Sound of launch site radio chatter: “Eight minus, and counting. Copy”]]

[Song: Alice Springs Underscore by Eliasson Ellgren]

MILES HATFIELD: This was the first launch from Equatorial Launch Australia. There was a lot of press. Remember, this is in the middle of nowhere in this tiny town that does not have a capacity for a hundred journalists to come out and cover the story. So they had set up this tent site far away at the edge of the range for all the press and VIPs.

[[Sound of VIP tour bus arriving, tape recorder clicking on and whirring]]

Miles Hatfield

That’s the sound of the VIP tour bus, which has just arrived. And the CEO of ELA, the Equatorial Launch Australia, CEO of the range, leading the tour. It’s carrying the U.S. Consul General.

[[Sound of tape recorder clicking off]]

[Music: Alice Springs Underscore by Eliasson Ellgren]

MILES HATFIELD: Everyone was there. We were setting up our cameras. And I was trying to pay attention to a couple different groups at the same time. There’s the actual science team, their main action doesn’t happen until the rocket’s already in the air. Prior to that there’s the wind waiting people. The range safety officer, there’s the campaign manager, there’s all these people who are running the operations that are getting the rocket ready to go. We’re kind of bouncing around between these people trying to make sure we’re capturing everything that’s happening.

MILES HATFIELD: You want to capture the actual rocket launch, so you want to be outside seeing the launch, but then you of course, want to see the scientists’ reaction, you want to be following them as the data is coming in. But then there’s also right up before launch, the real excitement is in the offices where the people are actually controlling the launcher, which is separate from the science team. So you really kind of want to be in a bunch of different places at once.

[[Sound of tape recorder clicking on, whirring]]

Miles Hatfield

It’s T minus two hours and the activity is starting to pick up. The whole range was pretty quiet about an hour ago, but now the VIPs are showing up and everyone’s getting ready. The rocket’s vertical and we’re getting ready for launch.

[[Sound of tape recorder clicking off]]

MILES HATFIELD: It’s supposed to be the dry season. They planned the launch windows during the dry season, they expected it to be dry. That was not the case.

[[Sound of tape recorder clicking on and whirring, rain starting]]

Miles Hatfield

Captain’s log. Stuck in the car again because it’s the third time it’s rained for two minutes before stopping while we keep trying to set up the cameras. But it keeps raining.

[[Sound of tape recorder clicking off]]

MILES HATFIELD: The weather was terrible. We had so many stop-starts because of the wind and the rain.

[[Rain turns to a downpour]]

Miles Hatfield

That’s the sound of it suddenly starting to pour at four minutes until launch.

[[Sound of launch site announcer: “Programmer copies, going to hold at three minutes.”]]

MILES HATFIELD: It would be like nothing, looks like we’re getting close, get down to two minutes in the count, and then a huge rainstorm would open up. And it would just, like, flood everything. Three minutes later it would go away. And we’d start, OK, pick up the count again.

Miles Hatfield

I say we might as well get the Canon set up, and if we have to tear it down for the rain we tear it down, but let’s get it set up.

[Music: Alice Springs Underscore by Eliasson Ellgren]

[[Sound of launch site announcer: “30 seconds. Copy 30.”]]

MILES HATFIELD: We’re out there and we’re watching. And after many, many stops and starts, the count is clear. I got this great video of the range safety officer, she’s the person who makes the final call about wind. So she’s going to be the last person to say, “Stop, hold.” And you can see her as the launch gets down to the count.

[[Sound of launch site announcer: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3…]]

MILES HATFIELD: Just before everyone else gets excited, she gets excited. And it’s like three two one…

[[Launch site announcer, simultaneously with Miles: 2, 1]]

MILES HATFIELD: And like before anyone else she’s already like, “Yeah!”

MILES HATFIELD: And then you can see the rocket go off and everyone else is cheering.

[[Sound of rocket launching]]

[[Sound of people whooping, clapping, talking as rocket sound fades away]]

MILES HATFIELD: If you’ve seen videos of like, the space shuttle, it’s sort of this slow lift off. It is not a slow lift off with a sounding rocket. It’s loud, it’s fast.

MILES HATFIELD: I tried to capture audio. It just sounds like you’re breaking the camera. It just sounds [mimics rocket launch sound]. It’s like if you’re ripping something really thick, like thick paper. That’s what it sounded like.

[Song: Broken Land by Eric Darken]

MILES HATFIELD: As the rocket launches, different parts of it fall off, first the first stage motor falls off, then the second stage kicks in, and it stays with the payload, which is the scientific instrument part, all the way up into space. And then the end opens up so that the telescope can see. All that eventually falls back down. The nose cone separates, the payload has a parachute that comes out so it falls back down, hopefully gets a soft landing.

[[Sound of walking from the launch range to the science building across gravel, birds in the background]]

Miles Hatfield

Now in to see what the science team is looking at.

[Song: Uluru Ayers Rock Theme Instrumental by Tropp and Weber]

MILES HATFIELD: After the launch, the main exciting thing that’s happening is like, the scientists like rapidly, seeing all the things that they’re getting, watching the data come in.

[[Sound of walking up metal steps, door opening, science team voices in the background]]

[[Sound of science team chatter: “What’s the ratio? Come on.”]]

MILES HATFIELD: Everyone was super excited. And watching the scientists’ faces as the data was coming in… I interviewed one of the grad students afterwards…

Avirup Roy, University of Wisconsin Madison Physics Graduate Student

My name is Avirup Roy. I am a sixth-year grad student from the University of Wisconsin.

MILES HATFIELD: I asked him, “How are you feeling, how are you doing?”

Miles Hatfield

How ya feeling?

MILES HATFIELD: And I think he said, “I have not been better in a long time.”

Avirup Roy

I have not been better in a while.

Miles Hatfield

Yeah? Congratulations man.

MILES HATFIELD: [Laughs] I loved it.

Avirup Roy

We hope to find something new, and we know I think we will.

MILES HATFIELD: The whole flight, from the launch trail to it falling back down is probably like a half an hour. They only get about five minutes of observing time, once they’re up above the atmosphere. But if everything goes right, that’s plenty.

[[Sound of scientists clapping]]

Miles Hatfield

So did the parachute just deploy? Or like, what? How did..?

Dan McCammon, Principal Investigator for XQC sounding rocket mission

Yeah the parachute’s deployed, we’re on the chute now…

MILES HATFIELD: So the whole thing’s over pretty quick. Of course, then you have to go find the pieces of the rocket.

[Song: Coastal Highways Instrumental by Livingstone]

MILES HATFIELD: And that can take a while.

[[Sound of bushwhacking through brush down a ravine]]

MILES HATFIELD: I was lucky enough to go out and help get the first stage for the first rocket that launched. And so we were hiking out through the bush.

Miles Hatfield

So right now we’re hiking down the escarpment just on the other side of the launchpad. We are in search of the first stage, which is supposedly not more than about a kilometer or so away from the launch range. But we gotta get through some pretty serious thicket before we get there.

MILES HATFIELD: The thing that I think everyone on the internet knows about Australia is that everything there is trying to kill you.

MILES HATFIELD: We had these ants, they’re like green butt ants. That is totally not the scientifically correct term. But these ants that would crawl on us and they would bite.

Peter Elstner, PT Aeronautics Consultant

They’re all over me now Miles!

Miles Hatfield

Oh yeah, me too [laughs]

MILES HATFIELD: They were everywhere. And so we’re out there, just hiking around. And you just hear us all [mimics pain].

MILES HATFIELD: Luckily we were with some of the Dhimurru

rangers who really know the area and know the local wildlife…

Peter Elstner

What is it called? Gunydjuḻu?

Micah Pascoe, Dhimmuru Aboriginal Corporation Ranger


Miles Hatfield

MILES HATFIELD: We almost stepped on a king brown snake. You know, you just have to watch where you’re stepping.

MILES HATFIELD: But we’re bushwhacking, we’re getting out there and then we find the first stage and that stuff is pretty, like, it’s impaled in the ground.

Miles Hatfield

Wow! There it is. Oh wow.

Brian Bonsteel, NASA Wallops Flight Facility Air Program Manager

What a silly place to leave a rocket, right?

Miles Hatfield

[Laughs] Ah.

[[Sound of two-way radio beeping]]

MILES HATFIELD: We had to have the helicopter drop off tools to dig it out.

Peter Elstner

I think we’re gonna need a little more kit down here that I wasn’t thinking…

MILES HATFIELD: Crowbars, shovels, all that stuff, and a big net to put all that stuff back in.

[[Sound of two-way radio beeping and chatter]]

Peter Elstner

A shovel and a pry bar, a box of demo bags. Ten four.

MILES HATFIELD: And then the helicopter comes and takes it back.

[[Sound of helicopter passing overhead]]

Miles Hatfield

There he is!

MILES HATFIELD: It was so fun. It was really fun. I definitely want to go back there’s so much more of the country to see. And people were really friendly.

[Song: Ruminate 1 Instrumental by Goodman]

MILES HATFIELD: I’ve been writing about sounding rockets pretty much since I started at NASA, which was the end of 2017. So I’d written about it, but I didn’t really understand what it was like. I’d written about the science, I knew a lot about the different types of rockets like, I’d done plenty of coverage on this, but man, it’s different to be out there, to see the people that do the work. You get better stories. I’m a storyteller, right? I get to talk about the cool parts. So any other field campaigns, sign me up.

[Theme song: Curiosity Outro by SYSTEM Sounds]

HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. This episode was written and produced by Christian Elliott and edited by Christina Dana. Our executive producer is Katie Konans. The Curious Universe team includes Maddie Arnold and Micheala Sosby.

HOST PADI BOYD: Our theme song was composed by Matt Russo and Andrew Santaguida of SYSTEM Sounds. Special thanks to Denise Hill, Mara Johnson-Groh, and Joy Ng.

HOST PADI BOYD: If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a review, tweeting about the show and tagging @NASA, and sharing NASA’s Curious Universe with a friend. And remember, you can “follow” NASA’s Curious Universe in your favorite podcast app to get a notification each time we post a new episode.

[Music: Island Hopping percussion stem mix by Brian Flores]

[[Sound: Beep]]

Miles Hatfield

It’s not “How are you doing?” It’s “How are you going?” Right? It sort of blurs into one syllable. Howyagoinmate? Howyagoinmate? And, uh, how you going, mate. You know?

[[Sound: Beep]]

Miles Hatfield

I’d actually had it before, but we had to get Vegemite. And I actually kind of developed a taste for it. It’s very, very, very salty. And you got to start small. But I got a can of it. And after you know, three weeks, it was like alright, my Vegemite tolerance is up.

[[Sound: Beep]]

MILES HATFIELD: I would say I’m not generally afraid of spiders, but like spiders in a bathroom is not, that’s the last place you want. Anyhow, we saw what all the Australians online said was like a baby Huntsman. Of course the Americans are screaming.

Miles Hatfield

Dan, there’s a giant Huntsman spider in here.

Dan McCammon

How big?

Miles Hatfield

Come look at it! It’s right there

Dan McCammon


Miles Hatfield

Here’s the brave rocketeers! [laughs] Isn’t it just awful?