23 Nov 2017

New Zealand in space

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 23 November 2017

Australia recently announced the creation of a national space agency, ‘to cash in on a $420 billion aeronautical industry and create thousands of jobs.’

New Zealand, on the other hand, already has a number of strings to its space bow, ranging from a rocket launch company to radio telescopes. In this special Our Changing World feature, we find out about New Zealand in space.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket being prepared for launch.

Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket being prepared for launch. Photo: Rocket Lab

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All going to plan, this summer will see a rocket launched from New Zealand go into orbit around the earth for the very first time.

It’s the second test launch of Rocket Lab’s “Electron” rocket. The first launch in May of this year made it to space but failed to achieve orbit due to a problem with third-party data monitoring equipment. The company says the rocket itself worked perfectly, however, and is hopeful the next launch will reach orbit.

Rocket Lab's first test flight in May 2017.

Rocket Lab's first test flight in May 2017. Photo: Supplied / Rocket Lab

“We still are very much in a test programme,” says Rocket Lab’s founder, Peter Beck. “Think of it like a car. We’ve taken it around the block for the first time and all looks good, but now it’s time to really stretch it’s legs”.

Rocket Lab has been by far the most high profile player in New Zealand’s space science sector recently, but it’s not the only organisation involved. Google, NASA and Shanghai Pengxin have all used New Zealand as a launch site for high altitude balloons and some New Zealand universities are also looking spacewards.

Ncube-2, a Norwegian CubeSat.

Ncube-2, a Norwegian CubeSat. Photo: CC 1.0

Putting a CubeSat into orbit

One of the most exciting projects is the Auckland Programme for Space Systems, run by Dr Nicholas Rattenbury and Dr John Cater of Auckland University. The programme involves a CubeSat, designed and built by students, which is due to be launched into space by Rocket Lab in November 2018.

“[A CubeSat] is a box [that is] 100 milimetres on each side” says Dr Cater. “And that’s a standard unit from which you can construct more complex satellites. Our first mission is around one of these cubes.”
The students will be using their satellites to investigate a theory probably best described as “fringe”. It’s the idea that seismic activity in the earth’s crust creates signatures in the ionosphere, a region of the atmosphere between 60 to a thousand kilometers above the earth’s surface.

Some scientists have suggested that disturbances in the ionosphere could be used to predict earthquakes but most seismologists treat that theory with scepticism.

“This is pretty out there,” admits Nick, “but testing these theories is part of what science is. If you want to understand the truth then you have to go design an experiment to go test the theory and come up with evidence to either support or disprove the theory.”
Regardless of whether the students are able to come up with evidence that seismic forces are disrupting the atmosphere, Nick and John say the satellite will gather valuable data about the ionosphere, which is very poorly understood by scientists.

Two radio telescopes at Walkworth run by AUT.

Two radio telescopes at Walkworth run by AUT. Photo: Sergei Gulyaev CC 3.0

Radio astronomy and its role in GPS

Dr Sergei Gulyaev is another New Zealand scientist involved in space exploration - but he does it without any of his equipment ever leaving the ground. Sergei is Director of the Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research at Auckland University of Technology.

“We have the only radio-astronomic observatory in New Zealand,” Dr Gulyaev says. “We have two radio telescopes. One is a big 12 metre dish and the second one is even bigger, 30 metre diameter.”

Size matters in the radio astronomy game, but location can be even more important. New Zealand is a long way from other observatories - most of which are based in the northern hemisphere. That makes Dr Gulyaev’s dishes very useful for something called Very-Long-Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).

“Using several dishes around the world and combining data from them, we virtually create a radio telescope the size of a continent or the size of the earth. And the greater the size the better the resolution” explains Dr Gulyaev.

VLBI has allowed scientists to observe the detail of some of the most distant objects in the universe, including quasars. Quasars are ultra-bright objects which are thought to be titanic explosions from supermassive black holes at the hearts of early galaxies.

It’s hard to believe anything so distant in space and time could be relevant to us today, but the echoes of these explosions are critical for maintaining the Global Positioning System (GPS).

“Quasars are so incredibly far away that they keep their position all the time … they create a fundamental reference,” says Dr Gulyaev who, along with other radio astronomers, regularly observes about two thousand quasars which make up the International Celestial Reference Frame.

“Our telescopes are on a rotating, wobbling planet,” explains Dr Gulyaev. “Using this immovable reference frame created by these two thousand quasars we can judge very fine details of rotation, motion and wobbling … GPS satellites don’t care about some irregularities in the rotation of the earth, they just orbit [its centre of mass] and we need to tell them that the earth slightly slowed down or accelerated a little bit.”

So, next time you open Google Maps remember that you're using a piece of technology which fundamentally relies on titanic explosions, thousands of times brighter than our galaxy, which happened billions of years in the past.

Artist's visualisation of a quasar and accretion disk.

Artist's visualisation of a quasar and accretion disk. Photo: ESO/M. Kornmesser CC 4.0

The New Zealand Space Agency

The New Zealand Space Agency is the lead government agency for space policy, regulation and business development.

Centre for Space Science Technology

The newly created Centre for Space Science Technology, based in Alexandra, is one of the first Regional Research Institutes to be established with funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. Its aim is to encourage the use of space-based data for regional development, including more efficient agriculture and horticulture, as well as hazard monitoring.