Wooden satellites: Can space answer NZ’s productivity question?


On 14 April this year, just two days after the 60th anniversary of the first human space flight by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 on 12 April 1961, more than 100 Kiwis attended the Auckland Aerospace event in Auckland.

Since those days of Gagarin and Nasa’s original Mercury 7 astronauts, humans have extended their reach a fair way, including creating something of a traffic jam around Mars in 2021, with three missions from national space agencies in North America, Asia and the Middle East (Nasa, the China National Space Administration and the UAE Space Agency).

Everywhere you look nowadays there are more incredible stories about advances in space tech.

My recent favourite? Sumitomo Forestry and Kyoto University have been looking at “an advanced, high-performance composite made from cellulose and lignin, a pair of complex polymers which are strong in tension and compression respectively”.

That’s what you and I call wood. Apart from being cheap and abundant, wood offers two advantages for satellites, the researchers argue. First, it’s easily penetrated by radio waves, which makes manufacturing easier because antennae and sensors can be inside the satellite body. Second, the wood burns up completely on re-entry, leaving no dangerous space-junk up there. The researchers are hoping to launch their “LignoSat” prototype by 2023.

Wooden satellites. What’s next? Merino satellites?

Space cluster: Tāmaki-Makaurau

The space industry is growing rapidly in Auckland, with major implications – both regionally and nationally –for productivity, for jobs and incomes, for training and education opportunities, and for, in particular, our manufacturing sector.

This reflects the pace of activity and change in the global space industry – as shown for example in the massive increase in the number of commercial satellites in the last five years.

The Auckland aerospace event in April was an attempt to add momentum to the local growth, by giving people a snapshot of the current space community in Tāmaki-Makaurau and placing it in a national and global context.

The meet-up was funded and co-organised by Auckland Unlimited, the region’s economic development and cultural agency. Konstantin Selitskiy, a Growth Programme Specialist from Auckland Unlimited, was closely involved in organising the event, and he remarked to me that the region’s growing aerospace sector is a perfect example of the kind of development that will build on Auckland’s status as the country’s tech hub and generate skilled, high-value jobs and support Auckland businesses to innovate and thrive.

An outward-looking Auckland space network

A sense of the broader impact of space activity for Auckland’s and New Zealand’s wider economic development was an important theme at the Auckland event.

Pam Ford, GM for economic development at Auckland Unlimited, kicked off the panel discussion by talking about how to harness Auckland’s position as New Zealand’s tech powerhouse, which accounts for more than half of the country’s tech-sector GDP.

Ford presented an outward-looking rather than a parochial point of view, where an Auckland space cluster is just part of a network of similar clusters around the country.

She emphasised connecting and collaborating, both between different regions and between different segments of the space community, including government, universities, and business.

Ford’s thoughts were echoed by Peter Crabtree, head of the New Zealand Space Agency, our lead government agency for space policy, regulation and space development. He emphasised the need for regional cooperation, not competition, in Aotearoa. The competition is global, not domestic, and the prize is massive, he said.

Space as business

The speaker panel showcased a range of innovative work, happening in New Zealand right now.

Darcey Graham, a PhD student at Te Pūnaha Ātea, Auckland University’s Space Institute, is designing interplanetary trajectories for small, low-thrust space satellites.

Graham is working on the best way to get to Venus.

She deals with the initial “lo-fi” part of the puzzle, namely first identifying trajectories that are in the right ballpark and that can later be refined further in more detail.

But our space sector is more than just niche high-tech.

Economic development guru Steve Knuckey notes “the space sector” is typically seen as a very niche, high-tech industry involving just a small number of companies launching spacecraft, plus the specialist businesses that produce parts for rockets and satellites.

Steering clear of iceberg metaphors, Knuckey says that the niche is just the command module at the top of a massive multi-stage rocket, because it in fact connects with a huge range of business and community interests.

Beyond the manufacturers of launch vehicles, satellites and related instruments, the sector encompasses a large range of advanced manufacturers of drones, aircraft, electronics and materials.

It also includes businesses that use satellite data (such as satellite communication and navigation services). Then there’s a vast range of businesses that supply support services like software and IT, and financial and legal services. There are also a growing number of tourism businesses tapping into visitor demand for “dark sky” experiences.

In 2018/19 the space sector was estimated to directly contribute close to $900 million to New Zealand’s GDP, and over 5,000 jobs. It also supports another 7,000 jobs in other industries that service the space sector. Many of these jobs are highly skilled and well paid – exactly the types of jobs we need in Aotearoa to increase productivity and incomes.

Those high-skill, well-paid jobs aren’t just confined to our major cities. Although much of the R&D and commercial capability is in Auckland and Christchurch, there are also growing hotspots of activity throughout many of our regions.

The Rocket Lab launch site on the East Coast is well-known, but many New Zealanders won’t be aware of the Awarua Station in Southland that supports satellite missions and launch campaigns for space agencies and commercial players across the world – or of the Xerra Regional Research Institute in Alexandra, which leads research in earth observation and remote sensing technologies to solve real-world problems.

Spacebase’s New Zealand space directory also shows that there are clusters of space-related organisations and developments in Northland, Waikato, Hawke’s Bay, Taranaki, Manawatū, Wellington, Nelson-Marlborough and the broader Canterbury region.

Manufacturing booster

What’s also exciting about the rise of the manufacturing part of the space sector is that it shows that New Zealand can continue to grow manufacturing in niche areas where we have genuine capability. This can help to reduce what has been a long-term decline in manufacturing’s share of the economy.

That’s important, because manufacturing underpins innovation and R&D investment in New Zealand and contributes to a more diverse workforce. Our manufacturing sector contributes almost a third of our business investment in R&D and employs a higher proportion of Māori and Pacific people than the average industry.

The manufacturing sector is also responsible for more than 50 per cent of the value of our exports, and it opens up trade and investment connections for a wide range of New Zealand businesses.

Beyond its contribution to value-add and jobs, our space sector generates broader benefits for a range of industries and across society.

Here’s Knuckey again: “Space-based infrastructure supports our everyday use of telecommunications, navigation and weather services. Space-related businesses contributed to the worldwide response to COVID-19 by providing high-speed connectivity to remote locations, helping to produce medical equipment, and providing processing capability for modelling.

“Satellite data is being used in New Zealand to detect methane emissions from different sources to help combat climate change and to help farmers improve the effectiveness of grazing and fertiliser use. Drones are being used to monitor forestry health and to identify faults with power lines.”

We can’t yet imagine many of the innovative technologies and materials that will spin out from the sector. After all, we have international aerospace R&D to thank for things like LASIK eye surgery, scratch-resistant lenses, the cordless vacuum, wireless headsets, and even innersoles for shoes.

Rich boys’ toys?

In 1970s “Whitey’s on the moon”, African-American poet/musician Gil Scott Heron catalogued the daily battles his community was facing down here on Earth – including rat bites in slums owned by rent-gouging landlords – at the same time as the US government was spending more than a quarter of a trillion dollars (in 2020 money) on the Apollo space programme.

The implicit questions are fair ones: is the space industry just about toys for rich, white men? Or, if it has a serious purpose, is it just a semi-covert front for military tech development and missions?

I’ve been struck by how much the various players in New Zealand’s space sector emphasise using space tech to improve ordinary human lives down here on Earth.

A fine example of this is a project described by Dr Delwyn Moller at the Auckland cluster event. Delwyn is a radar systems engineer who is now an adjunct professor at Auckland University’s Engineering Faculty, and she’s heading up a central part of a new earth-science collaboration between Nasa, our MBIE, Auckland Uni, and Air New Zealand that will tell us more about “what’s going on down on our planet”.

When the project goes into action, most likely later in 2021, Air New Zealand commercial flights will carry Nasa’s latest GNSS-R receivers (for “Global Navigation Satellite System – Reflectrometry”), to pick up satellite signals reflected from the ground, as well as signals direct from the satellite.

It’s through comparing those two different signals that the project will learn some important things about the Earth’s surface, like changes in the moisture content of wetland soil.

Moller is heading up the Science Payload Operations Centre – or “SPOC” (she pleaded guilty to the intentionally space-nerdy acronym) – which will analyse the data here in Aotearoa. Her team will, she commented last year, “process these unique measurements into environmental data, opening up a range of research opportunities and potential uses, from flood risk management to agriculture and resource planning.”

Moller pointed out that the information is “free”, as “we’re just listening to information that’s already there.” Because of the different partners involved she described the project as a “true aerospace initiative”, and noted that this will be the first time a commercial airliner has hosted an earth science function like this.

Education and the “wow” factor

Let’s face it, space is cool. That “wow” factor has the potential to inspire our youth and help reverse New Zealand’s educational decline, particularly in maths and science, and help address the difficulties a range of industries are having in finding staff with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills.

Over the last 15 years, our Year 9 students’ average international assessment results for maths and science have gone backwards. Children in lower socio-economic communities and Māori and Pacific kids have particularly poor results. At the tertiary level, New Zealand’s STEM graduate share is low compared to other small advanced economies, and Māori, Pacific people and women are particularly under-represented.

Space and aerospace have the power to inspire and get young people interested in careers in the sector, and therefore in science and maths. This has been recognised by Engineering New Zealand, who introduced the “Rocket Challenge” into schools – getting students to design, build and launch their own water rockets with the support of their teachers and STEM professionals. Groups like Spacebase, Science Alive, and the University of Canterbury Aerospace club also offer outreach and education programmes for young people.

Through initiatives and post-school programmes like these, including also Rocket Lab’s apprenticeship scheme and the new postgrad aerospace degree at Auckland University, young people can now see real pathways from school to higher education to a range of fascinating jobs in the sector here in New Zealand.

A good example of this is the Master of Aerospace degree – “MAerospaceEng” – offered for the first time this year by Te Pūnaha Ātea, Auckland University’s Space Institute.Catherine Qualtrough, the Institute’s Research Operations Coordinator, talked to me about the strong interest shown in the new degree:

“The MAerospaceEng is New Zealand’s first postgraduate degree programme in Aerospace Engineering. We’ve seen a lot of interest in it as a specialisation, and we’re looking forward to seeing it be part of growing New Zealand’s aerospace workforce.”

Catherine also talked to me about Te Pūnaha Ātea”s research collaborations with Victoria University in Wellington, its undergraduate Cubesat programme, and its new Mission Ops Centre and Environmental Test Facilities, due to be operational by the end of 2021.

Last week the Government also announced that Te Pūnaha Ātea will play a central role in the new MethaneSAT mission, a global methane-tracking satellite that will tell us a lot about agricultural emissions. The Mission Operations Control Centre (MOCC) will initially be managed by Rocket Lab, but will then transfer to Te Pūnaha Ātea as the mission’s permanent host.

The mission is being funded by the New Zealand Space Agency, and it involves a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, a leading environmental NGO internationally.

Diversity opportunity

Space activity might be associated with white, male crew-cutted astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Alan Shepard, but there are encouraging stories out there that hopefully point to the developing space sector in Aotearoa being more diverse.

Overseas, Nasa for example appears to be pushing diversity with some energy – witness the team behind its Mars Perseverance rover for example – and the European Space Agency has also been making efforts.

Back here in Aotearoa, it was great to see that more than half of the panel at the Auckland cluster meet-up were women. In the Herald last week, Chris Keall also put a face to what is hopefully a trend towards a more ethnically diverse space sector here – he profiled Fia Jones, a Kiwi-Samoan physics student who this year launched Astrix Astronautics with two student colleagues, to develop her idea for a new type of solar power array for small satellites.

A couple of years ago Fia managed to impress Rocket Lab’s Peter Beck with her ideas, at an Auckland Uni reception. They kept in contact, and just recently Outset Ventures’ Deep Tech Fund, whose contributors include Beck, wrote a half-million-dollar cheque for Fia’s new start-up.

It’s clear that the future of New Zealand’s space sector belongs to a diverse range of entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, educators and students and that the work of this burgeoning space community could be a major part of a tech-driven economic recovery for Aotearoa post-COVID and beyond.

– Kevin Jenkins is a founder of www.martinjenkins.co.nz and writes about the intersection of business, innovation and regulation. He recently chaired a panel of space and economic development specialists at the Auckland Aerospace event on 14 April.

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