What could a New Zealand space programme look like?
As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of man landing on the moon Dr Nick Long reflects on what that's meant for New Zealand and considers the space 'gold rush' ahead.
I’m just old enough to remember watching astronauts live on a black and white TV as they walked on the moon.
As I recall, the two thoughts on everyone’s minds back then were, “Isn’t this incredible” followed by, “What are we going to get out of this?”
The answer to the question of value, if addressed at space technology broadly, was quite a lot.
We watch Sky TV and follow maps guided by GPS, weather forecasts are location specific and updated continuously, economists chart changes in world trade by looking at ship movements and we can check out everyone’s neighbourhood on Google Earth.
We also have far greater knowledge of the solar system and the universe: just think of how we followed the Mars rover and the awesome images from the Hubble telescope.
Fifty years later, through the enthusiasm and talent of a few individuals, we now have space rockets launched from New Zealand. We have a recently formed New Zealand Space Agency. The thoughts in my mind are again, “Isn’t this incredible” and “What are we going to get out of this?”
Obviously, the New Zealand–American Rocket Lab has huge potential as a transport company servicing the ‘new space’ economy.
This is the idea that nano-satellites can open new opportunities in communications, Earth observation and science missions that previously would have been hugely expensive.
Swarms of small satellites acting in concert can achieve as much or more than previously achieved with the most sophisticated satellite deployment.
There is enormous growth forecast worldwide in small satellite deployment and much of this cargo can be launched from Mahia Peninsula.
We already make good use of satellite data in areas such as meteorology and geographical information services. However, we can lift our environmental and economic management much further through the creative use of Earth observation (EO) data.
Combining EO data and new computing technologies such as machine learning can transform our understanding of environmental and logistical problems and open our eyes to new solutions.
The impacts from better and novel uses of satellite data are many: detection and monitoring of algae toxic blooms, monitoring the health of our natural vegetation, monitoring commercial forests and crops, faster responses to landslides and earthquakes, monitoring of our maritime environment and airspace, telecommunications, and asset management.
The still new regional research institute Xerra in Alexandria has been tasked with leading this mission in New Zealand.
NASA had a ‘mission to Planet Earth’ starting in the 1990s. We can have our own ‘mission to the South Pacific’.
Between the rockets and the data is the satellite hardware.
In this area, New Zealand has the chance to ‘spin-in’ technologies where we are already strong.
My own Robinson Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington and our partner company HTS-110 Ltd have already gained international commercial funding to work on superconducting magnet systems for satellite thrusters.
The Universities of Auckland and Canterbury have notable research efforts in developing thrusters and ADAC (attitude determination and control) systems respectively.
Christchurch composites company Fabrum Solutions has commercial contracts supplying composite materials and developing cryo-coolers for space applications.
Rocket Lab itself is developing satellite platform technologies for use by its customers and there are start-ups such as Dawn Aerospace and Zenno Astronautics working on in-space propulsion technologies.
There is a ‘gold rush’ for small companies looking to profit from the new opportunities in space.
With a home launch capability and adaptable regulatory environment, New Zealand companies can move fast to find the winning market solutions.
A New Zealand space programme should also look outwards and learn something about the universe.
I don’t know what this should be, but New Zealand has a strong astronomy and physics community that could support an ambitious space science mission.
We also have the SMART group of Māori astronomy researchers who can bring a Mātauranga Māori perspective to such a mission.
We wouldn’t have to do this alone either.
Space science is a natural arena for international collaborations, with the concomitant spin-offs in goodwill at the inter-government level.
Our challenge, 50 years after Apollo 11, it to grow a nascent space industry to become a significant part of our economy and culture.
We can solve some of our greatest challenges here on Earth with the tools of space technologies and going to space can inspire us to look beyond the Earth in cooperation with our friends and allies.
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