6 mins to read

AUT lands 10-year SpaceX deal

AUT University has signed a 10-year contract to track flights for SpaceX - starting with last night's historic first private flight to the International Space Station. 

Chris Keall
Wed, 23 May 2012

AUT University has signed a 10-year deal to track flights for SpaceX - starting with last night's historic first private flight to the International Space Station (scroll down for a video of the launch). 

The university has been contracted to monitor space flights for California-based SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies).

SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space craft from Cape Canaveral (the old Space Shuttle launch site) yesterday at 7.45pm New Zealand time (following an aborted takeoff on Saturday).

The Dragon capsule is now traveling at 5km a second in an orbit below the ISS. It will dock with the station on Friday NZ time. Its pod bays doors have opened and its solar panels successfully unfurled. 

The un-manned Dragon capsule is carrying 2500kg of food, water and scientific supplies (plus a laptop).  It will ferry cargo back after being docked for around 18 days.

Under the agreement, AUT’s Institute of Radio Astronomy and Space Research (IRASR) will monitor up to 12 space flights a year for SpaceX, which is owned by billionaire PayPal founder Elon Musk.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The flight will be a second test in a $US396 million program by SpaceX to develop the cargo ship.

If successful, SpaceX will then enter a $US1.6 billion contract for a dozen cargo flights to the station under the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program - introduced after President Barack Obama phased out the space shuttle programme.

COTS is designed to deliver cargo to the ISS. In terms of human traffic, Nasa has commissioned Russia to ferry astronauts to the ISS - at around $US53m a person per flight.

Initial flights will deliver cargo but SpaceX will later transport ISS crews and eventually expand its service to private tourists.

AUT’s IRASR was approached by SpaceX to assist with the venture because of its geographical location and the fact it has worked extensively with space agencies worldwide.

AUT’s radio astronomy observatory north of Auckland will track the spacecraft and translate critical operating data between it and its operational headquarters throughout the flight.

The university has two radio telescopes at the Warkworth satellite station - one a 12m dish (pictured above) bought new from US company Patriot Systems for around $2m, the other a 30m monster donated to AUT by Telecom on a 20-year lease.

The less powerful but more agile 12m dish is being used for SpaceX tracking.

SpaceX mission operations engineer Steve Mance says: “AUT’s station will play an extremely important role in the mission and we are incredibly excited to have the IRASR as part of the team.”

Said IRASR director Professor Sergei Gulyaev: “We will monitor the flight from launch to re-entry, and provide a two-way communication channel throughout.

"We will also be called upon to pinpoint the craft’s landing position as it splashes into the sea near California.

“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 coordinates for its landing.

"If needed they will be able to fine tune the crafts trajectory using our radio telescope.”

Mr Gulyaev said tracking was successful last night.

Dragon's orbit takes it over New Zealand, but is not visible to the naked eye.

In preparation for the project AUT space scientists have been carrying out tests with the ISS monitoring satellites and other spacecraft.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is a two-stage booster standing about 55m tall and is topped with the company’s unmanned Dragon space capsule.

This gumdrop-shaped capsule will complete the trip to the ISS, where a crew of astronauts will pluck it from space using a robotic arm.

The Dragon will then be attached to the orbiting complex by the robotic arm.

A second US company with a Nasa cargo contract, Orbital Sciences Corporation, is aiming to get its first test flight off the ground in the second half of this year.

MORE: SpaceX YouTube channel | SpaceX on Facebook
NASA SpaceX commercial launch page


  • Day 1/Launch Day: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launches [7.45pm Tuesday May 22 NZ time] a Dragon spacecraft into orbit from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
  • Day 2: Dragon orbits Earth as it travels toward the International Space Station.
  • Day 3: Dragon’s sensors and flight systems are subject to a series of complicated tests to determine if the vehicle is ready to berth with the space station; these tests include maneuvers and systems checks that see the vehicle come within 1.5 miles of the station.
  • Day 4: Nasa decides if Dragon is allowed to attempt to berth with the station. If so, Dragon approaches; it is captured by station’s robotic arm and attached to the station. This requires extreme precision even as both Dragon and station orbit the Earth every 90 minutes.
  • Day 5: Astronauts open Dragon’s hatch, unload supplies and fill Dragon with return cargo.
  • To be determined: After approximately two weeks, Dragon is detached from the station and returns to Earth, landing in the Pacific, hundreds of kliometres west of Southern California.

Chris Keall
Wed, 23 May 2012
© All content copyright NBR. Do not reproduce in any form without permission, even if you have a paid subscription.
AUT lands 10-year SpaceX deal