Lift off: New Zealand finally enters the space commercialisation race

Published on the 08/02/2018 | Written by Jonathan Cotton

Kiwi's in space

Rocket Lab puts payload into orbit...

Elon Musk’s Space X stole the headlines this week, launching a car into space via its Falcon Heavy rocket, the most powerful rocket in the world. While Musk still has the instincts of an impresario, but on this side of the world we’re currently doing equally great things in the final frontier, just without the same degree of showmanship.

Case in point: Last month Kiwi private spaceflight company Rocket Lab launched and deployed its first successful payload – an orbiting art piece called the Humanity Star – along with three other commercial satellites.

While the positioning of an orbiting disco ball is not particularly useful on its own, it does illustrate New Zealand’s rapidly growing space capabilities, capabilities very much focused on the commercialisation of space down under.

“Today marks the beginning of a new era in commercial access to space,” said Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck of the launch.

“Reaching orbit on a second test flight is significant on its own, but successfully deploying customer payloads so early in a new rocket program is almost unprecedented.”

“Rocket Lab was founded on the principal of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it. Today we took a significant step towards that,” he said.

The company currently has five Electron vehicles in production, with the next launch expected soon. At full production, Rocket Lab expects to launch more than 50 times a year, and is regulated to launch up to 120 times a year, more than any other commercial or government launch provider in history.

It’s heartening that the New Zealand government finally seems to be taking domestic space legislation seriously. While a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty 1967 and the Liability for Damage to Space Assets Convention 1972, New Zealand has since been content to watch from the sidelines as the international community prepares for the coming rush to orbit.

That all changed late last year with The Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017, legislation designed to facilitate the development of a space industry and “provide for its safe and secure operation”.

“The New Zealand Government supports the development of an internationally credible, competitive and well connected NZ-based space economy that can make a difference in our everyday lives,” said the New Zealand Space Agency in its 2017 announcement.

“Our regulatory regime is the key to making this happen. It enables the growth of a safe, responsible and secure space industry that meets our international obligations and manages any liability arising from our obligations as a Launching State.”

The new laws cover launches into outer space, requirements for launch facilities, payloads and high altitude vehicles among other things.

It’s about time. New Zealand’s geographical location is second to few, and very suited to the commercial and smaller satellite market. And as satellites get smaller, cheaper to produce and easier to place, the opportunities are beginning to present themselves.

Christchurch geospatial technology company Orbica is currently trialling a satellite-based augmentation system to see if it can pinpoint underground assets that have been dug up in urban environments – such as water pipes – with margins of error less than 0.5m, and even down to 0.1m or better.

Funded by the Australian and New Zealand Government, if successful, the project could revolutionise the utilities infrastructure industry.

“Here’s the thing: often underground asset data has a large positional margin of error,” said Orbica CEO Kurt Janssen.

“Five metres is not unheard of, and the lack of understanding about the level of accuracy in digital asset records causes many headaches for the utility owner and wider community, including health and safety risks. But if you can collect asset information easily with modern mobile equipment, within a spade’s width accuracy, everything changes.”

“It’s about democratising the accuracy and precision of data,” said Janssen. “For the average person on the street, it has the potential to reduce end-user costs for utility services due to reduced costs in the infrastructure industry and decreased health and safety risks for the public and those working in the utilities construction and maintenance sectors.”

So with New Zealand becoming the eleventh country in the world to have space launch capabilities, could space be New Zealand’s new financial frontier?

With the right support, there’s little reason why not.

To that end, last week saw the launch of the 2018 NZ Space Challenge, an initiative designed to develop and apply space data and technologies to current problems. Especially those faced in extreme environments, be it space or Antarctica.

And with a focus on the commercialisation of successful entries – and the promise of start-up support – it seems like things could finally be getting under way.

“Space is no longer the domain of governments,” says international space consultant and SpaceBase co-founder Emeline Paat- Dahlstrom.

“As an entrepreneurial country New Zealand is positioned well to lead training, networking and develop technical services as the world looks to co-create a global space ecosystem.”

Track Rocket Lab’s Humanity Star here.

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