updated 11/30/2009 2:48:38 PM ET 2009-11-30T19:48:38

A New Zealand company launched a rocket into space Monday in what it claimed was the first private missile launch in the Southern Hemisphere.

About 50 people gathered on Great Mercury Island, off North Island, to watch the launch of the 20-foot (6-meter), 150-pound (60 kilogram) projectile, named Atea-1. Rocket Labs developed it without any government money.

The rocket burned for 20 seconds to reach its target speed of up to Mach 5 — or 3,100 miles (5,000 kilometers) per hour, reaching an altitude of at least 60 miles (100 kilometers). It spent up to 20 minutes in the atmosphere before splashing back down into the south Pacific Ocean.

The feeling after the launch was "profound" and one of "pure elation, incredible," company director Mark Rocket said. "A lot of people were crying. It was really dramatic."

Rocket Labs is hoping to provide space launch facilities for business ventures and scientists, including weather researchers. It has indicated no plans for launching people into space.

The company is now waiting for the payload's GPS signal to be picked up, so it can be retrieved and data recovered in the next two days.

The team would not know how high the rocket had risen, but with its new nose cone, Rocket — who legally changed his name recently from Stevens — speculated it could have reached as high as 94 miles (150 kilometers) above the earth's surface.

After the group recovered the payload the next step would be planning the next launch, he said.

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