Aerospace and space engineering

We perform research and development work as part of Te Pūnaha Ātea, the University's Space Institute.

There is increasing research activity related to the fields of aerospace and space engineering at our faculty, University, and in New Zealand. Our people are involved in many areas — from theoretical concepts to hardware implementation, academic study and computational models, to Assembly Integration and Testing, and industrial applications.

Spacecraft Microvibrations and Stable Structures

Microvibration produced by the functioning of on board equipment — such as Reaction Wheel Assemblies, Cryocoolers, pointing mechanisms and more — and propagating through the spacecraft structure can seriously degrade the performance of accurately targeted payloads that include high resolution cameras or telescopes, and interferometers.

Our work is on the modelling and control of microvibrations. In particular we carry out theoretical modelling of transmission and control, supported by experimental verification activities and on-orbit validation.

Our expertise allows us to tackle the following issues:

  • Modelling and control of micro-vibrations which is theoretical modelling of the sources and transmission supported by experimental verification activities and on-orbit validation
  • Ultra-stable structures which are procedures to increase the stability of CFRP structures exposed to harsh environments

Deployable structures

Deployable structures are typically used in space application to enable the launch of equipment whose operational size in orbit exceeds the volume available in the launch vehicle. Solar arrays and antennas are typical examples of structures that are launched in a stowed configuration, and deployed once in orbit.

There are also classes of payloads — like optical instruments — where large structural elements are used to maintain optical components in place that could benefit from more compact, stowed launch configurations.

We are currently working on various projects that involve deployable structures for de-orbit devices, deployable antennas and optical instruments.

Correlation/Validation of FEM and Virtual Shaker testing

The correlation and validation of Finite Element Models (FEM) against physical test results are particularly important in the space industry because the loads experienced by a satellite during launch can only be accurately predicted by analysing the FEM of the satellite coupled with that of the Launch Vehicle. Our research focuses on: 

  • Representativeness of typical num-exp performance indicators, including MAC, Cross-orthogonality check and FRAC used for FEM correlation and validation in the space industry
  • FEM semi-automatic updates to improve correlations between FEM and physical test results
  • Improvement of testing procedures, with development of techniques aimed at avoiding over-testing for specific pieces of equipment mounted on satellites

Some related work has tackled the issue of modelling the test facility, as this can be coupled with the test item (satellite). This may produce discrepancies between numerical analysis and test results. Our researchers have been involved in developing a virtual testing methodology for vibration testing of spacecraft structures.

Synthetic Aperture Radar technology development

This project aims to develop the underlying science and technology needed to provide New Zealand with an overhead monitoring capability using space-based assets. This is research conducted through funding from the Science for Technological Innovation (SfTI) National Science Challenge to develop novel miniature Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) hardware and software for small satellites.

A growing research group involves collaborators from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), Australian National University (ANU) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Plasma micro-propulsion technology development

We are collaborating with the Space Physics, Plasma and Propulsion Laboratory at the Australian National Laboratory (ANU) and Stanford University to develop and test novel miniature satellite electric propulsion systems. Our work includes improving the Technology Readiness Level of ANU’s Pocket Rocket to enable the first space flight of the propulsion system in a CubeSat. In conjunction with this work, we are investigating optimal flight trajectories for low delta-v thrust systems to enable interplanetary exploration with small satellites.

Materials Science for sample return

We're leveraging existing national expertise in light metals technology to develop new materials for ablation and thermal insulation to enable satellite sample return missions. We are also developing micro-fluidics devices for chemical and biological processing in low Earth orbit.

Our people