NASA successfully launched a rocket from Australia’s remote Northern Territory, becoming the agency’s first commercial spaceport launch outside of the United States.
According to Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), the center’s developer, owner, and operator, the rocket took off just after midnight local time Monday from the Arnhem Space Center on the Dhupuma Plateau, near the township of Nhulunbuy.
The rocket will travel more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) into space on its mission to observe the Alpha Centauri A and B constellations, which are the closest star systems to Earth.
Alpha Centauri has special significance for Australia. According to Reuters, it is mostly visible from the Southern Hemisphere and is one of the “pointers” to the Southern Cross constellation that appears on the country’s flag.
Monday’s event was also historic for Australia, as it was the country’s first commercial space launch. It was the first of three launches, with the remaining two scheduled for July 4 and July 12. According to NASA, these will conduct astrophysical studies that can only be conducted from the Southern Hemisphere.
It was a historic night, according to Michael Jones, executive chairman and group CEO of ELA.
“We could never have dreamed of having such a supportive, experienced and professional partner as NASA. They have been unbelievably generous in helping us through this journey and we will be a much better organization for their support,” Jones said in a statement.
“Today’s launch not only puts ELA at the forefront of global commercial space launch, it also confirms that we and Australia can provide access to space and this is just the beginning for us,” he added.
Australian National University astrophysicist Brad Tucker, who was on site to watch the launch, said wind and rain beforehand had caused some nervousness about whether it would go ahead.
But after a delay of more than an hour, excitement broke out as the rocket took off.
“At that final time, nearly everyone ran outside to see the launch and watch in awe. Even after we lost sight of the rocket, people stood outside for such a long time,” Tucker said.
Tucker stated that the suborbital missions were designed to better understand the star systems and whether or not there were any habitable planets there.
NASA is the first client for ELA’s commercial spaceport, and 70 of its employees have traveled to Australia for the three missions.
The mission, according to NASA, will study the evolution of galaxies by measuring X-rays emitted by hot gases that fill the space between stars.
The Arnhem Space Center bills itself as the world’s only commercially owned and operated multi-user equatorial launch site.