22 May 2012

Private company Space X launches rocket

9:09 pm on 22 May 2012

American company Space X has successfully launched the first commercial rocket to resupply the International Space Station.

The Falcon 9 topped by an unmanned Dragon freight capsule blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 3.44 local time on Tuesday.

The initial climb to an altitude some 340km above the Earth lasted a little under 10 minutes and within moments of being ejected, Dragon opened its solar panels, the BBC reports.

It will take a couple of days to reach the International Space Station (ISS). The plan currently is for the vessel to demonstrate its guidance, control and communications systems on Thursday at a distance of 2.5km from the ISS.

If those practice proximity manoeuvres go well, Dragon will be allowed to drive to within 10 metres of the ISS on Friday.

Astronauts inside the platform will then grab the ship with a robotic arm and berth it to the 400km-high structure. They will empty Dragon of its 500kg of food, water and equipment, before releasing it for a return to Earth at the end of May.

The company's first attempt last week was aborted after computers detected a fault in the engine.

Tuesday's mission has major significance because it marks a big change in the way the United States wants to conduct its space operations.

NASA is attempting to offload routine human spaceflight operations in low-Earth orbit to commercial industry in a way similar to how some large organisations contract out their IT or payroll.

It is investing in SpaceX and four other companies to fly cargo and eventually astronauts to the station after retiring its space shuttles in 2011.

However, some members of the US Congress have expressed doubt that the private sector can be trusted with the complexities of manned space flight.

In New Zealand, Auckland University of Technology is using its radio astronomy observatory to track the spacecraft in flight.