Kiwi scientists keep watch on history-making rocket

By Hana Garrett-Walker

Professor Sergei Gulyaev (centre), and colleagues Tim Natusch (left) and Stuart Weston will track the rocket's flight from their Warkworth station.  Photo / Greg Bowker
Professor Sergei Gulyaev (centre), and colleagues Tim Natusch (left) and Stuart Weston will track the rocket's flight from their Warkworth station. Photo / Greg Bowker

Two very long weeks of work will tonight come rocketing back down to Earth for a group of AUT professors.

AUT University's radio astronomy observatory north of Auckland has been contracted to track the re-entry into Earth's atmosphere of the first private space flight to the International Space Station (ISS).

California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) launched its 55m-tall Falcon 9 rocket, topped with the gumdrop-shaped Dragon space craft, from Cape Canaveral on May 22.

It berthed at the ISS on Friday and about 6.30pm (NZT) today it will be detaching from it, starting its six-hour decent back down to Earth.

Professor Stuart Weston will be one of two men at the observatory tonight tracking the Dragon, and today said it was a childhood dream coming true.

"I'm just over 50, I grew up during the Apollo era, I was a little kid watching the Apollo and then I thought wouldn't it be great to work for Nasa, to be involved in the space industry, or something like that, for me it's like a childhood dream about 40 years later."

AUT University's Institute of Radio Astronomy and Space Research (IRASR) was approached by SpaceX about a year ago and was asked to track Dragon's re-entry into the atmosphere because of New Zealand's location and AUT's experience with space agencies including Nasa, Jaxa, the European Space Agency and the Russian Space Agency.

Director of the IRASR, Professor Sergei Gulyaev said New Zealand would become more involved in space flights thanks to its "fantastic" location on the globe.

Using radio astronomy - tracking objects in space through radio frequencies - his team will have the world's best vantage point from which to monitor Dragon's descent as it splashes into the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of kilometres off the coast of California tomorrow night.

"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.

Prof Weston was not too anxious about tonight's work, which could take about six hours, and said the work would be "easily manageable".

"It's just a series of co-ordinates, it's coming back into the earth so we get a set of x,y,z coordinates coming back in. From that we can then programme the antenna to track it, that's fairly easy," he said.

"Today it's basically going to be the end of a very long two weeks, because we've had a lot of late nights."

The AUT team have a contract to track the next 11 missions to space by SpaceX, averaging about four a year.

"By 2014 they will be hoping to take people up...So we could well be tracking manned missions to low earth orbit so that will be awesome," Prof Weston said.

Initial flights by SpaceX, owned by PayPal founder Elon Musk, will deliver cargo.

- APNZ

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