Kiwi scientists are tracking the world's first private flight to the International Space Station.
AUT has been contracted to monitor flights for California-based SpaceX, which is owned by PayPal founder Elon Musk and launched its unmanned Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space craft last night.
As they blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Professor Sergei Gulyaev and his team from the AUT Institute of Radio Astronomy and Space Research were following its progress from a radio astronomy observatory north of Auckland.
AUT will monitor up to 12 space flights a year for SpaceX. Initial flights will deliver cargo but SpaceX will later transport ISS astronauts and eventually extend its service to private tourists.
The IRASR was approached by SpaceX to assist with the venture due to its geographical location and the fact that it has worked extensively with space agencies worldwide including NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), the Russian Space Agency and JAXA (Japanese Space Agency).
SpaceX mission operations engineer Steve Mance said AUT would play an "extremely important" role in the mission.
It will track the spacecraft and translate critical operating data between it and its operational headquarters throughout the flight.
And upon re-entry AUT’s astronomers will take on a critical role, providing SpaceX with the Dragon’s landing coordinates.
“We will monitor the flight from launch to re-entry, and provide a two-way communication channel throughout. We will also be called upon to pin-point the craft’s landing position as it splashes into the sea near California," said Professor Gulyaev.
“New Zealand’s unique location in the South Pacific means we will be able to see the spacecraft before the SpaceX team, and therefore be able to give them exact coordinates for its landing. If needed they will be able to fine tune the crafts trajectory using our radio telescope.”
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is a two-stage booster standing about 55 metres tall and topped with the company’s unmanned Dragon space capsule. This gumdrop-shaped capsule will complete the trip to the ISS, where a crew of astronauts will pluck it from space using a robotic arm. The Dragon will then be attached to the orbiting complex by the robotic arm.
The craft launched from Cape Canaveral (the old NASA launch site) in the United States. It will deliver 2,500 kg of food, water and other cargo to the 16-nation outpost, a capability the US gave up when it retired the space shuttle last year.