Australia is making a belated attempt to join the competition for a new generation of microsatellites with the approval of government support for the creation of a cooperative research centre (CRC) for satellite systems.

The centre plans to build a 50-kg satellite for low-orbit experiments in communications, space physics, remote sensing and engineering. It will be launched in 2001 as an official part of the centenary celebrations of the federation of Australia's six states as an independent country, hence the project's name, FedSat-1.

With its base for military and civil tests at Woomera in the sparsely populated centre of the continent, Australia was in the forefront of space developments in the 1960s, a position enhanced by delays to the US manned flight programme after the fatal ground fire on Apollo 1.

In 1967, Australia became only the third country to launch a satellite from its own soil, placing one of the first X-ray telescopes in orbit. Built by the Weapons Research Establishment and the University of Adelaide, this was carried on an American military Redstone rocket.

But the rocket range fell into disuse after the cancellation of the British government's Blue Streak missile programme, which had been under test at Woomera, and the collapse of subsequent efforts to develop a civilian launcher through the European Launcher Development Organisation.

From the late 1980s to early 1996, the then Labor government promoted Australia's potential as a launch site, whether for polar orbiting satellites from Woomera or near-equatorial launches from Cape York in the northeast. The bodies responsible for these efforts were disbanded to save money in the budget of August 1996.

But the science minister, Peter McGauran, retained A$2 million (US$1.5 million) a year and decided that a new CRC would specialize in space-related research. It was to be based on a group in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization, the government's largest research agency, which is already carrying out remote sensing of Australia's vast land and ocean territory.

After delays in obtaining promises of collaboration from universities and small companies that produce components for satellites launched by other countries, the centre has now been approved, and its public funding increased to A$20 million over seven years, which is more than matched by contributions of A$36 million from the partners.

Design and construction of the microsatellite will take place mainly in Adelaide, Canberra and Brisbane. Although the launch site and vehicle have yet to be decided, the centre's director, Brian Embleton, says a firm offer of a rocket has been received from the Japanese Space Agency, with expressions of interest from Russia and the United States. Embleton says Asian countries are keen to share payloads with the Australian project as an affordable means of obtaining information from space.