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NZ’s leap into the space race

With New Zealand’s entry into the space race has come our very own space agency. Sam Sachdeva spoke to NZ Space Agency head Peter Crabtree about the challenges of entering orbit and where the industry is headed next.

When a rocket blasted off from Mahia Peninsula in May this year, New Zealand became the 11th country to launch into space.

It was a small step in what Peter Crabtree and others hope could become a larger leap into the global space race.

Crabtree, MBIE’s general manager of science and innovation, is tasked with overseeing the New Zealand Space Agency.

The agency was launched in April 2016, but Crabtree says the work began in late 2015, when US-NZ aerospace company Rocket Lab approached MBIE with a plan to carry out rocket launches in New Zealand.

“Their launches were going to be out of the US but they very quickly realised that they couldn’t get what we call the tempo of launches out of the US, 50 to 100 a year, it was never going to be feasible....

“The request came and we thought sure, it will be quite simple, but it wasn’t - it became very clear there were loads of either obstacles or preconditions that we didn’t have here.”

The United States needed “bolted-down assurances” that its missile control technologies would be protected - provided in a Technology Safeguards Agreement - while New Zealand itself had to develop a policy and legal framework to govern what took place here.

“Little pockets of government had been focused on things like remote sensing and earth observation, but we had no national space policy at all.”

Within four months, the basic template had been set up with a speed Crabtree is still proud of.

“It’s been interesting lately talking to other parties in the world where they've taken years and years to work on their space laws and they haven’t got anywhere, and we were quite lucky because we had a blank sheet of paper.”

Ticking all the boxes

The New Zealand Space Agency is rather less grandiose than it sounds: the team is made up of between 15 and 20 staff, and until July this year it had to make do with existing MBIE funding (it’s since been given $4 million a year to develop its regulatory regime).

The biggest challenge, Crabtree says, has been the “classic small government thing” of lacking expertise.

“We didn’t have the experience or technological depth, but the focus is on picking things up quickly but also working with international partners who can bring that to you...

“I set the challenge which was, can we move as fast as Rocket Lab?”

New Zealand has what Crabtree deems “a natural resource endowment” when it comes to space-related activities, such as a range of launch angles.

“You want to launch a rocket to the east, and you want to launch a rocket over the ocean, and you want that ocean to be relatively clear of ships, and you want the sky to be relatively clear of planes…

“There are very few places in the world that tick all the boxes.”

The way New Zealand’s space regime has been set up also appeals.

NZ Space Agency head Peter Crabtree. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Crabtree distinguishes between “old space actors and new space actors”: the former have relied on government funding, while the latter - like Rocket Lab - are largely paid for by private capital.

Other countries’ rules have been set up for old actors, with big launches that happen infrequently, while New Zealand’s have been designed primarily for the new kids on the block.

“Here we’ve got very small rockets, potentially very frequent launches, so we’ve got a regime which is in essence proportionate to the risks associated with that.”

One of the goals is to entice other companies to piggyback on Rocket Lab’s success. While launches are valuable to the economy, Crabtree says the most lucrative slice of the space economy comes from services - remote sensing, navigation systems, telecommunications, hazard management, precision agriculture and more.

“With Rocket Lab, what we have is an anchor tenant: they’re got an R&D presence here and they’ve got a manufacturing presence and as the manufacturing presence steps up, it feeds through the whole supply chain and that’s a really exciting thing here.”

Team New Zealand provided the carbon composite technology which was invaluable to Rocket Lab, and Crabtree says the benefits can flow in the other direction.

“Kids get interested in science either through dinosaurs or space, and we’ve had lots of dinosaur kids, but space hasn’t really had a fair go.”

“If you’re doing space commercial activity, you’re solving hard problems and those hard problems are very relevant to other things...

“So much of our consumer technology that we have now essentially evolved out of space programmes - everything from watches to telecommunications were generated by these big science projects and innovation projects.”

Beyond the economic calculations, Crabtree hopes a booming space industry can encourage children to develop an interest in space and technology.

“Kids get interested in science either through dinosaurs or space, and we’ve had lots of dinosaur kids, but space hasn’t really had a fair go.”

The agency has been providing educational materials for schools to use, while universities also want to attract those keen on making a future contribution to the space race.

While Rocket Lab is the only game in town at present, the agency is hopeful that other companies could eventually choose to launch rockets from New Zealand.

“We’ve been out in the world trying to seek to understand what that market looks like now, and what it might look like in a few years’ time.”

At the moment, Rocket Lab is leading the pack in small launches due to its lead in technology and investment, but Crabtree is sure that will change.

“The prospects are big so others will be chasing, and others will face the same constraints Rocket Lab has faced in terms of where could you launch from, so we’re very clear to other parties around the world that New Zealand could be a destination for them.”

'Democratisation of space'

As new companies and countries enter the market, we are seeing what Crabtree describes as “a democratisation of space”.

With current treaties largely based on big state interests, space rules and governance will need to adapt to new forms of activity, including something as simple as the increased risk of collisions in a more congested space.

“We need to make sure we’re a really responsible participant in that, so we’ve got a long-term interest in helping shape that global regime as well as operating within it.”

There is also a need to manage foreign actors keen to make the most of New Zealand’s conditions; a recent report expressing concerns about Chinese influence here noted that companies Shanghai Pengxin and KuangChi Science have used New Zealand dairy farms for near-space launches.

Crabtree says the new Outer Space and High-Altitude Activities Act, which comes into force in December, will allow the Government to reject any space or high-altitude activity not in New Zealand’s interest, including on national security grounds.

“It will all be decided on a case-by-case basis, and we have a whole lot of tests in the regulations: who are these people, are they fit and proper people?”

Next, the agency will focus on building up the science and innovation side of the equation, fuelling the labour market for the new industry, and finding funds to help bring in other Rocket Labs.

Our humble space agency has already attracted the interest of bigger players: Crabtree has already spoken to NASA, and hopes to bring the European Space Agency over in the near future to show how our modest model can succeed.

“Instead of seeing small as a problem, being small and agile is an advantage.”

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