Alumnus gift to help Kiwis explore space

Dr Neil Paton, who graduated from our Faculty of Engineering in 1962, has kindly offered his support for our Auckland Programme for Space Systems.

APSS students Emma Doolin and Aryan Lobie with a CubeSat in our cleanroom.

The Auckland Programme for Space Systems (APSS) was launched in 2016 by the Faculty of Engineering, with initial seed funding from the Vice Chancellor’s Discretionary Fund. It is designed for University of Auckland students from all disciplines to collaborate towards reaching a common goal – to contribute broadly towards the emerging field of space research.

At the heart of the programme is its annual Mission Proposal Competition, where cross-disciplinary teams of undergraduate students identify a social need and look solve it using a 1U CubeSat, a 10 x 10 x 10cm miniature satellite. The range of innovative proposals have included monitoring emissions in Earth's atmosphere, space junk detection, and earthquake prediction via measuring electron density in the ionosphere.

It has been thrilling to see over 400 students involved in a programme out of interest since its inception – with no academic credit assigned, this speaks volumes about the APSS's widespread appeal.

The APSS provides a platform for students to develop a range of transferable skills as they transition from university to the workplace. For some, we hope that the programme will be a stepping stone to contribute to New Zealand’s emerging space industry, to undertake PhD research in the field, or to potentially commercialise their ideas and start their own ventures.

One student group is already beginning their commercial journey. Zenno Astronautics, a team born from the 2017 APSS cohort recently received a $125K grant from the Return on Science Foundation, and won the highly prestigious Velocity $100K Challenge with their idea that hopes to make space accessible, safe, and sustainable.

Considering the impact that programme has had so far, we are extremely grateful for the recent philanthropic gift we have received from Faculty of Engineering alumnus and aerospace materials consultant Dr Neil Paton and his wife Louise. Their support was prompted by the energy and enthusiasm Dr Paton experienced during a visit earlier this year.

“With the advent of New Zealand’s budding launch capability, this endeavour seemed to make a lot of sense”, he said.

Dr Paton completed his bachelors and masters degrees in Mechanical Engineering with us in the early 60s, pursued a PhD in Materials Science at MIT, and subsequently went on to contribute to the fields of advanced aluminium and high-temperature alloys for aerospace applications. He considers his gift to be “a perfect opportunity for us to express our gratitude for the outstanding education available in Auckland so many years ago”.

I could not help but think back to the time I graduated; when one of my career goals was to get involved in the space programme and my only option at the time was to leave New Zealand, which is what I did. I ended up getting a job at Rockwell International, working initially on the Apollo, then the Space Shuttle programme. How exciting to think that a young engineering graduate from Auckland today could work on cutting-edge space research and not have to travel halfway around the world.

Dr Neil Paton

APSS Director Jim Hefkey adds, “space exploration has been a dream for many generations, and we’re extremely thankful for this generous gift, which we believe will enable the APSS to help support what may become a reality for our future students and graduates right here in New Zealand".

Find out more about the Auckland Programme for Space Systems at