By Kathleen Magramo, CNN
NASA has successfully launched a rocket from Australia’s remote Northern Territory, making history as the agency’s first commercial spaceport launch outside the United States.
The rocket blasted off at just past midnight local time Monday from the Arnhem Space Center on the Dhupuma Plateau, near the township of Nhulunbuy, according to Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), the developer, owner and operator of the center.
The rocket is expected to travel more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) into space on its mission to observe the Alpha Centauri A and B constellations — the nearest star systems to the Earth.
Alpha Centauri bears a special meaning for Australia. It is mostly only visible from the Southern Hemisphere and is one of the “pointers” to the Southern Cross constellation that appears on the country’s flag, according to Reuters.
Monday’s event also made history for Australia as the first commercial space launch in the country. It was the first of three launches, with a further two planned for July 4 and July 12. These will carry out astrophysical studies that can only be done from the Southern Hemisphere, according to NASA.
Michael Jones, executive chairman and group CEO of ELA, said it was a historic night.
“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 said the suborbital missions were aimed at better understanding the star systems and whether any habitable planets existed there.
NASA is the first client for the commercial spaceport operated by ELA and 70 of its staff have traveled to Australia for the three missions.
The American space agency said the mission will study the evolution of galaxies by measuring X-rays produced by hot gases that fill the space between stars.
The Arnhem Space Center describes itself as the only commercially owned and run multi-user equatorial launch site in the world.
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