NZ and German researchers partner up in space

University of Auckland and German space experts are partnering up for research into using carbon fibre for spacecraft and laser light technology to transmit data to Earth.

Photo: iStock

The projects are part of a joint research programme between New Zealand and the German Aerospace Center, known as the DLR.

They are two of eight projects awarded a share of $8 million from the Ministry of Business and Innovation’s Catalyst Fund, which supports international science and innovation that benefits New Zealand.

The university-based projects are led by Associate Professor John Cater, from the Department of Engineering Science in the Faculty of Engineering, and Dr Nick Rattenbury, from the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Science. Both researchers have been working with the DLR since 2017.

“The DLR has excellent people, excellent facilities and a level of space research expertise that runs very deep,” says Dr Cater. “We are delighted they want to keep on working with us.”

Dr John Cater is working on the project looking at the use of carbon fibre reinforced polymers for space launch vehicles and deployable structures such as solar panels and antennas that open once a spacecraft reaches its destination.

“Carbon fibre composites offer many advantages over the metals traditionally used in space,” he says. “They are lightweight and offer tremendous flexibility on how they can be used for complex parts that have different mechanical requirements.

“Our research will be about how these materials survive and perform in space-like conditions and what happens to them on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.”

New Zealand has significant expertise creating products from carbon fibre due to many years of homegrown experience in the yachting industry, and through aerospace companies such as Rocket Lab.

Dr Rattenbury’s project is about the use of free-space optical communications (or laser light technology) to transmit information from spacecraft down to Earth – in this case, to a DLR component that will be installed at the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory at Takapō.

“Traditionally, getting information from space has involved radio waves. The alternative technology using laser light means that we are able to transmit more information more securely.” says Dr Rattenbury.

“As an optical astronomer, I am used to collecting information from stars. But this research is about collecting huge amounts of information from fast-moving spacecraft.

“Germany leads the world in this technology so to be working with these researchers and being respected for what we bring to the project is very exciting,” he adds.

The DLR is a research-only organisation. It has a staff of more than 10,000 and an annual budget reported to be more than €3 billion (NZ$5 billion). It brings together more than 40 institutions and facilities around Germany.

“By comparison, New Zealand is a young player in the industry and that has advantages,” says Dr Cater. “It means we are a small community with a nimble infrastructure where things can happen quickly.”

Dr Rattenbury adds: “There is also a lot of expertise here with small companies all around New Zealand that have been supplying the space industry for many years, making parts that end up in prime missions by major global space agencies. That experience, and our willingness to look outwards for research and development opportunities, adds to our appeal as a partner for the DRL.”

Both researchers are also involved in a national partnership, led by the Robinson Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington that is developing new electric propulsion systems for spacecraft.

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