Space is for everybody

More than a few researchers we meet on our travels raise an amused, sceptical eyebrow at the thought of Kiwis being among those with an interest in space, but, in fact, Aotearoa New Zealand has a long history in space science and technology.

Professor Juliet Gerrard and Marta Mager in front of the White House, Washington DC.
Professor Juliet Gerrard and Marta Mager in front of the White House, Washington DC.

STARTING WITH BILL PICKERING leading NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab from 1954 to 1976, and Beatrice Tinsley’s pioneering astronomy from the 1960s to the 1980s, through to Peter Beck and his team at Rocket Lab, we can confidently say, ‘we have form!’.

Indeed, in 2017, New Zealand was the first country in the world to host a fully-private launch operator, Rocket Lab, offering dedicated small satellite launches from their own facility on the Mahia Peninsula. Its frequent launch model and Electron launch vehicle draws on cutting-edge technology from across New Zealand’s science and innovation system – supported by government effort led by the New Zealand Space Agency(NZSA), located within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

As well as having a track record in science and technology, our legislation, the Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act, enables a responsible, secure and innovative New Zealand-based launch industry and allows ready connections with the global space sector, which is fast growing and inherently research and development intensive.

Space is for everybody. It’s not just for a few people in science or math, or for a select group of astronauts. That’s our new frontier out there, and it’s everybody’s business to know about space.

Christa McAuliffe (1948-1986)

An increasing number of other commercial companies are launching, manufacturing, and operating satellites. This creates an increasing market for downstream products and services using the data generated by these satellites. The application of space-based services and products is becoming more common, opening new ways of communicating, navigating and understanding our natural environment using satellites for observation.

Our journey as a space-faring nation began in the ‘New Space’ era – a term that describes the accelerating pace of private sector investment and innovation that is transforming the global space economy. Unlike most space-faring nations, New Zealand does not have a legacy in traditional, large-scale government-led space programmes, but we do have a particularly collaborative and agile approach to space, and our ‘space ecosystem’ is evolving rapidly. Beyond Rocket Lab, we already have great space start-ups across the country (including some that have come out of the University of Auckland) and opportunities to grow. We’re off to a promising start: a recent Deloitte report has found New Zealand’s space sector contributed $1.69 billion to the economy in the 2018/2019 financial year and employs 12,000 people.

Earlier this year, the New Zealand Space Agency supported a delegation of nine space companies and research organisations at the world’s largest annual space convention, the International Astronautical Congress in Washington DC. Professor Guglielmo Aglietti, inaugural director of Te Pūnaha Ātea – Auckland Space Institute, and Dr John Cater from the Faculty of Engineering represented the University of Auckland. New Zealand signed several agreements, including a memorandum of understanding with the Australian Space Agency.

Another milestone in 2019 was the completion of US Company LeoLabs’ Kiwi Space Radar in Naseby, Central Otago, which helps tracks objects in lower earth orbits down to two centimetres. And MBIE’s Peter Crabtree recently spoke about how New Zealand met its responsibilities under the Outer SpaceTreaty, as well as our ambitions to maximise the opportunities for science and technology around the space opportunity. So, despite those raised eyebrows, we predict exciting times ahead.

Professor Juliet Gerrard
Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor
Kaitohutohu Mātanga Pūtaiao Matua ki te Pirimia

Marta Mager
Head of Agency/Minister Counsellor
Science & Innovation
USA & Canada


This article appears in the December 2019 edition of inSCight, the print magazine for Faculty of Science alumni. View more articles from inSCight.

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