A small team of Kiwi scientists has landed a stellar role in the world's first private flight to the International Space Station.

As SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space craft blasted off from Cape Canaveral last night - making history with the first commercial unmanned flight to the station - Professor Sergei Gulyaev and his team from AUT University's Institute of Radio Astronomy and Space Research were tracking its position from a radio astronomy observatory at Warkworth.

California-based SpaceX, owned by PayPal founder Elon Musk, has contracted AUT to monitor up to 12 space flights a year, both because of its location and its experience with space agencies including Nasa, Jaxa, European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency.

Mr Gulyaev expected the country would become more involved in space flights thanks to its "fantastic" location on the globe.


Using radio astronomy - whereby objects in space can be tracked by radio frequencies - his team will have the world's best vantage point from which to monitor the Dragon's descent as it splashes into the Pacific Ocean, near the California coast.

"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 co-ordinates for its landing," he said.

"If needed they will be able to fine-tune the craft's trajectory using our radio telescope."

"We are basically the last point from where you can observe most of the descending trajectory. Our role is now getting more and more important because of our location.

"Our isolation used to be a problem, now it's our benefit."

SpaceX's initial flights would deliver cargo but SpaceX will later transport space station crews and eventually expand its service to private tourists.

"This is a new era in space flight," Mr Gulyaev said.

"The paradigm is shifting from space agencies to commercial operations, and I expect our role in space exploration and radio astronomy will grow."

The Russian-born scientist is meanwhile involved in a push for a new radio telescope site in Southland which raised the possibility of predicting earthquakes.

Using quasars - distant reference points on the edge of the universe - radio astronomers could measure the rate at which two satellite stations on each tectonic plate moved, to the millimetre.

Although this would not determine where and when earthquakes would happen, it could be combined with GPS technology, geology and seismology to attempt a prediction.