NASA launches the first rocket from the Australian Space Center

The rocket launched Monday just after midnight local time from Arnhem Space Center on the Dhupuma Plateau near the township of Nhulunbuy, according to Equatorial Launch Australia (ELA), the center’s developer, owner and operator.

The rocket is expected to travel more than 300 kilometers (186 miles) into space to observe the constellations Alpha Centauri A and B – the closest star systems to Earth.

Alpha Centauri has a special meaning for Australia. Visible mostly only from the southern hemisphere, it 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 country’s first commercial space launch. It was the first of three launches, with two more planned for July 4 and 12. According to NASA, these will carry out astrophysical studies that can only be carried out from the southern hemisphere.

Michael Jones, ELA Executive Chairman and Group CEO, 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 incredibly generous in helping us throughout 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 validates that we and Australia can provide access to space, and this is just the beginning for us,” he added.

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Australian National University astrophysicist Brad Tucker, who was on hand to observe the launch, said the wind and rain caused some nervousness in advance about whether the launch would go ahead.

But after a delay of more than an hour, the excitement erupted as the rocket lifted off.

“By that last point almost everyone ran outside to see the start and watched in awe. Even after we lost sight of the rocket, people stood outside for so long,” Tucker said.

Tucker said the suborbital missions are aimed at better understanding star systems and determining whether habitable planets exist there.

NASA is the first customer for the commercial spaceport operated by ELA, and 70 of its employees have traveled to Australia for the three missions.

The US 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 operated multi-user equatorial launch site in the world.