The extraordinary story of how New Zealand entered the space race

by Sally Blundell / 09 December, 2018
Rocket Lab’s “It’s Business Time” rocket ready to launch its first payload of small commercial satellites in mid-November. Photo/Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab’s “It’s Business Time” rocket ready to launch its first payload of small commercial satellites in mid-November. Photo/Rocket Lab

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Half a century after the first manned spacecraft orbited the moon and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey surged across cinema screens, the space race is back on and New Zealand is in the game. Are we ready? 

On a calm, clear afternoon on November 11, with a hiss and a roar and a great cloud of steam, Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket blasted into orbit from the remote Māhia Peninsula.

The mission, jauntily named “It’s Business Time”, is Rocket Lab’s first commercial venture into space, marking a new era in space business in this country and the world. Where once-giant rockets lumbered into the ether, Rocket Lab’s are smaller, lighter and cheaper, providing commercial high-frequency launch services for the small-satellite industry – it is licensed to launch up to 120 times a year – using its 3D-printed, carbon-fibre rockets.

“It’s Business Time” carried a batch of small commercial satellites: two ship-tracking satellites for Spire Global; an environment-monitoring satellite for GeoOptics; a small probe built by high school students in California and a demonstration version of the new “drag sail” structure used to pull defunct satellites out of orbit in a kind of cosmic clean-up operation.

This is where the sharing economy is literally taking flight, offering, like Uber, “ridesharing” opportunities to launch constellations of small satellites into low-Earth orbit. As Rocket Lab founder and chief executive Peter Beck told the New York Times, “We’re FedEx. We’re a little man that delivers a parcel to your door.”

A “little man” getting noticed: Beck has just been awarded the Royal Aeronautical Society’s gold medal for work of an outstanding nature in aerospace. The company won the team gold medal for its innovative Rutherford engine and another gong for its Electron rocket at the annual awards.

Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle is test-fired in May 2017. Photo/Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab’s Electron launch vehicle is test-fired in May 2017. Photo/Rocket Lab

All systems go

Rocket Lab’s successful commercial launch was the latest in a busy calendar of space events in this country.

In January, its “Still Testing” rocket lifted off from the world’s first private launch site, in Māhia.

In May, the first NZ Space Challenge, with a brief to apply new technologies to the extreme environments of Antarctica and outer space, was won by Tauranga-based GPS Control Systems for its navigation satellite system. July saw the official launch of Kea Aerospace in Christchurch, with a goal to commercialise aerospace industries and develop a space strategy for the city.

In October, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) signed an agreement to work together on space systems, Earth observation and space-related transport and energy technologies. As the head of the New Zealand Space Agency, MBIE’s Peter Crabtree, says, the agreement is an important step for the burgeoning Kiwi space sector, offering an opportunity to connect New Zealand research institutions with world-leading space scientists and engineers in Germany.

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. Photo/Rocket Lab

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck. Photo/Rocket Lab

Career paths

Back in Christchurch, 18-year-old Papanui High School student Sophie Deam returned home from a five-day stint at the International Space Camp in Alabama. “Learning more about the opportunities was really reassuring,” she says. “I want to be an astrophysicist, someone who looks at space from the ground – and we are at the frontier.

“Ten years from now, I’d like to be working at a research university or research facility. I always envisioned myself overseas because I felt that is where the career would take me, but if it keeps me in New Zealand, that would be really cool.”

Deam’s dream could well become a reality. As Nasa’s August-launched Parker Solar Probe slings around the sun’s outer atmosphere and Donald Trump raises the sci-fi spectre of a US space force, New Zealand has declared itself open for space business, touting our clear skies, ease of business, good telecommunications, proximity to Antarctica (seen as comparable to the extreme environments of outer space) and, according to MBIE’s website, our strong tech sector.

Driving this interest is the growing demand for high-quality Earth observational (EO) data, not just for our smartphones, Google Maps and real-time one-day cricket internationals, but also for decisions related to forestry, agriculture, soil moisture, ocean and coastal monitoring and navigation.

In its 2017 Earth Observation Research Strategy report, Land Information New Zealand (Linz) describes the importance of EO data for climate change, natural resource management, disaster preparedness, sea-level rise, storm surges, flooding, water and road networks, farming intensification and native forest cover.

Sophie Deam at the International Space Camp in Alabama. Photo/Deam collection

Sophie Deam at the International Space Camp in Alabama. Photo/Deam collection

But there are concerns we are not working fast enough to meet the growing demand for such data. As the Linz report notes, New Zealand has no national strategy for Earth observation, little cohesion or co-operation within its scattered space sector and no single point of contact, not even “a small department in charge of Earth observations”.

Linz resilience group manager Graeme Blick says huge opportunities are to be gained from collaborating to buy or gather satellite data, but still “there’s no one EO dataset that can provide all the insights needed to address big challenges such as climate change, urban growth or water”.

Already, that is changing. Following the “What on Earth Colloquium” in Wellington in March, a number of organisations using EO data, including Linz, formed a working group to develop a more coherent EO community. The group has commissioned a stocktake of exising EO users and the datasets they use. In October, LINZ represented New Zealand at the inter-governmental Group on Earth Observations (GEO) in Kyoto.

New Zealand has not followed the usual path into the space or EO industry. Space programmes have traditionally grown from big-budget government investments, boosted by the galactic aspirations of billionaires – Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, PayPal’s Elon Musk and Virgin’s Richard Branson – then spinning out into a raft of small tech-savvy start-ups feeding the market for space launches and observational data.

Mark Rocket, Kea Aerospace founder, former co-director of Rocket Lab and the first Kiwi to sign up to Virgin Galactic’s space tourism programme, says there are two ends to the space-launch market. “You have the SpaceX end [SpaceX is a private American aerospace manufacturer founded by Musk] which is the expensive big, heavy stuff, and you have the lower end where, instead of sending buses up into space, you want to send little microwave or fridge-size payloads,” says Rocket, who changed his name by deed poll from Mark Stevens.

Mark Rocket. Photo/Rocket Lab

Finding a niche

New Zealand’s pitch for space is on the back of small hardware – including the compact 10x10x10cm satellites called CubeSats – and more frequent launches operating in a commercial space.

This is what Rafael Kargren, director of technical and commercial operations at the recently established Centre for Space Science Technologies in Alexandra, describes as Space 2.0 – a platform of new start-ups and investments driven by people saying you do not need to spend $150 million to build a satellite and take 10 years to build it. “You can do it in two months at a cost of $10,000.”

Targeting this lower end, Rocket Lab is now a US corporation with a subsidiary in New Zealand, with financial backing from Lockheed Martin, venture capitalists Vinod Khosla and Bessemer Venture Partners, Callaghan Innovation and Sir Stephen Tindall’s K1W1 investment fund. It has access to three launch sites in the US but New Zealand, says Beck, still has a huge advantage in its uncluttered airspace.

“In the US, every time you launch a rocket you have to close down large chunks of airspace, so you end up diverting a whole lot of air traffic. The launch site here gives us a frequency we need, and the market for this right now is enormous. There are 2900 spacecraft requiring launch in the next five years – and that assumes no growth in the market.”

New Zealand is no stranger to this market. Google and Nasa already launch high-altitude balloons from here. This is the seventh year Nasa’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (Sofia) has run its winter stargazing mission from Christchurch. In 2015, following a deal between then prime minister John Key and China’s President Xi Jinping, Hong Kong-listed company Kuang-Chi Science launched a huge one-tonne helium balloon into near space (between 20km and 100km above sea level) from a Chinese-owned dairy farm near Ashburton. According to a statement from Kuang-Chi, the technology “has a number of potential applications, the most obvious being Wi-Fi access”.

Venture Southland’s Awarua Satellite Ground Station just north of Bluff, originally commissioned by the European Space Agency, has been in operation since 2008 and is set to build a new satellite-tracking antenna.

Auckland University of Technology’s Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research, New Zealand’s first (and only) radio astronomical institute, collaborates with international observatories and space agencies and conducts research into radio astronomy, astrophysics and Earth science applications.

The carbon composite Electron launch vehicle. Photo/Rocket Lab

The carbon composite Electron launch vehicle. Photo/Rocket Lab

Jobs across the board

In 2016, the University of Auckland launched its Auckland Programme for Space Systems (APSS), an undergraduate initiative in which teams of students collaborate on identifying societal needs for Earth-observation data, design a solution using a CubeSat, then hitch a lift on one of Rocket Lab’s Electron rockets. Unlike the standalone space programmes at Australian tertiary institutions, the programme is multidisciplinary, straddling geography, environmental science, urban planning, computer science, sociology, physics and economics.

“Most of the lower-orbit satellites are inwards looking, gazing down on the Earth to solve problems for humanity,” says APSS director Jim Hefkey, “so you need to have the humanities involved to identify what problems we can solve. Then you need to wrap a business case around it so you get the business students involved, then science students involved to figure out what data needs collecting, then engineers to build it. The thing gets launched, then ICT and computer people manipulate data streams and deliver the results to the end user. So it covers all those areas; even law gets involved in this space.”

The university is setting up a Space Science Institute, bringing together academic expertise in space systems and connecting researchers with industry.

The University of Canterbury, one of only two Australasian universities in the international Universities Space Research Association, has expertise in rocketry – it has a test site near Lake Ellesmere – propulsion, guidance and navigation systems and materials science. Its business development manager, David Humm, says many students look to Rocket Lab as a career pathway, “but there are many more opportunities. The space industry includes a number of technology companies working in the value-added supply chain supporting the launch, ground and satellite space segments with any number of new materials, software and specific space products and services. We are keenly interested in space as a pathway for students and as an opportunity to engage and develop collaborative research opportunities. It is not just rocket vehicles – it is all the technology that supports it. It is a future-of-work conversation.”

Staff at Rocket Lab’s Auckland production facility. Photo/Rocket Lab

Staff at Rocket Lab’s Auckland production facility. Photo/Rocket Lab

The Government is scrabbling to try to steer that conversation. Between 2015 and 2016, within a remarkable 18 months, MBIE established the New Zealand Space Agency, with a budget of $14 million over four years, to help the country get a foothold in the global commercial space industry and build the necessary legislative structure. The resulting 2017 Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act governs the launch of rockets and satellites and regulates launch facilities through a licensing system.

In 2016, MBIE also confirmed funding for Alexandra’s Centre for Space Science Technologies (CSST), one of the country’s first regional research institutes aimed at increasing the use of space-based observation data and developing local business opportunities.

This was the brainchild of Alexandra scientist Greg Bodeker, of Bodeker Scientific. As Rocket Lab and CubeSat technologies opened the floodgates to the commercial use of space, he recognised an opportunity for New Zealand to gather its own space-based measurements to boost regional economic growth and support environmental monitoring and planning. “I could see New Zealand was losing a huge opportunity to capitalise on the availability of freely available Earth observation data from space,” he says.

The CSST was originally intended to act as a broker for international satellite data – paving the way for research, developing products and services that use satellite data, and building satellites tailored to regional industries, with offices in Alexandra, New Plymouth and Lincoln and a central storage hub in Dunedin. But the plan for three satellite branches has been dropped – there will be no CSST-built CubeSats and rather than building a physical hub, they are now working on a cloud-based platform specifically for New Zealand's hard-to-access Earth observation data. “With petabytes of global Earth observation data available from platforms like Google's Earth Engine, we're focused on developing the tools and algorithms that researchers and regional industries can use to turn New Zealand's raw data into actionable information,” says CSST chief executive Steve Cotter.

The focus now is on building in-house research capability in collaboration with other local and international organisations. It has already begun working with the University of Southern California to map soil moisture technology so farmers can make better decisions around irrigation.

“Still Testing” is launched in January. Photo/Rocket Lab

“Still Testing” is launched in January. Photo/Rocket Lab

Competing for space

As New Zealand struggles to get its space ducks in a row, other countries are also eyeing opportunities. Two recent reports by Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley predict the space economy will be worth about US$1 trillion by the 2040s.

A year after the NZ Space Agency put out its Open-for-Business sign in 2016, the Australian Government put aside $45 million for its new space agency in a bid to win a greater share of the $500 billion global space market than its present 0.8%. By 2030, Cabinet Minister Michaelia Cash told the Canberra Times, the industry could create about 20,000 high-paying jobs.

Other countries, even cities, have structured programmes at universities and well-defined space strategies – Adelaide, for example, has its own South Australia Space Industry Centre and growth strategy.

Entry to the space industry is no longer dictated by size. Luxembourg, population 600,000, has its eye on mineral-rich asteroids in a bid to become the world hub for the space-mining industry. In 2016, it earmarked $223 million to provide early-stage funding and grants to companies working towards space mining. Last year, it became the first European country to pass a law conferring to companies the ownership of any resources they extract from space.

“There are lots of opportunities,” says CSST’s Kargren. “It is hard to shoot in every direction, but there is a piece of cake for everyone. Today, we take pictures of Earth or New Zealand using [satellite] sensors and we usually have to send those pictures to India or the US to process and do the analytics – that all could be done in New Zealand. Three years ago, it was a challenge getting pictures of Earth – only one or two companies could do it. Now there are about 50 companies around the world and the data has become a commodity – this is a huge opportunity for New Zealand. The question is, do we want to be part of it or do we want to let other places such as Australia take away that opportunity?

“Rocket Lab is a success story – there are at least 20 start-ups around the world trying to replicate its model – but it took Rocket Lab 10 years to get off the ground. We want to create an ecosystem where people don’t need to go through that painful path to succeed. Customers will probably be in the US, Europe and Asia, so it is about propelling that capability and advertising it on the global market and bringing those investors here.”

MBIE’s Crabtree predicts more small satellites, more launches and more data. Within the next year, he says, we could be launching more satellites than anyone else in the world. He says the New Zealand Space Agency is working on a national space strategy and an overview of space-related industries to identify all the Government-supported programmes and initiatives that may be relevant to aerospace, “so we can understand what capability we have, figure out what the gaps are, bring the community together, make sensible investments and at the same time work on a start-up system looking for capital funding. At every institution, you pick up a rock and you find someone doing something absolutely amazing that is related to space, contributing to a global pool of knowledge, helping students into businesses.”

Beck credits the agency “for listening and enabling rather than mandating”. But, just as it did not take the Government to create a major film industry or the America’s Cup, so, too, our fledgling space industry can find its own niches, he says. “I’m a great proponent of just letting it roll a bit. It is so new. No one will have the right answers. A bit of organised chaos right now, a bit of a scrap, is perfect – this is what innovation comes from.”

This article was first published in the December 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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