Soon after midnight local time, NASA successfully launched a rocket from the Arnhem Space Centre near Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory. Problematic winds and rain had delayed the blast-off for more than one hour.
The first commercial space launch in Australian history, the Sunday night blast-off was the first time since 1995 NASA launched a rocket from Aussie soil. It was also the agency’s first launch from a commercial spaceport outside the US.
The rocket’s payload is an X-ray quantum calorimeter. The instrument will be used to make high-precision measurements of x-ray light to determine energy emanating from celestial objects.
University of Michigan scientists will use the tool to study the structure and evolution of the cosmos. Astronomers believe the tool will help them understand how the radiation produced by stars can influence the habitability of planets orbiting distant stars.
Shooting up to 300km above the Australian wilderness, NASA’s instruments will conduct astrophysics that can only be undertaken in the southern hemisphere. But the launch site also needed to be close to the equator.
“At 12 degrees [latitude] in Arnhem you don’t get many places closer to the equator. Particularly, you don’t get places close to the equator where you can get dry, stable air. Florida, where Cape Canaveral [host to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center] is, is kind of a swamp,” says Australian National University astrophysicist Brad Tucker.
The launch was the culmination of work involving NASA, which had 75 personnel present for take-off, and the local indigenous Yolngu people who helped build the Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA)-owned Arnhem Space Centre on Yolngu country.
ELA streamed the event on its YouTube channel. The company plans to conduct at least 50 launches a year by 2024.
Another two NASA rockets are scheduled for launch from Arnhem Space Centre, on July 4 and 12 respectively, carrying probes which will measure ultraviolet light and star structure.
These missions will observe Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to Earth and the Southern Cross constellation. The constellation and Alpha Centauri can only be seen in southern skies.
“The big goal is to see if there are potentially Earth-like planets around it,” says Tucker. He adds that scientists have been waiting a decade to launch a rocket from the southern hemisphere.