8 Feb 2019

Our place in the space race

From Two Cents' Worth, 2:00 pm on 8 February 2019

 Humans are increasingly looking to space with dollar signs in their eyes, because there is money to be made in them there celestial hills.

Sentinel-5P satellite.

Sentinel-5P satellite. Photo: Supplied/European Space Agency.

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Kevin Jenkins is a business strategist and just loves all things to do with space.

He says it’s a total disruptor industry.

“Nothing much seems to happen for a long time. But out of the public eye there was a frenzy of innovation and now we’re seeing the fruits of that and New Zealand’s in the thick of it,” he said.

Kevin Jenkins

Kevin Jenkins Photo: Lindsay Keats

But Jenkins warns that it’s not just about visiting other solar systems and galaxies.

“In fact, if you look more closely, you’ll find a lot of the industry is around how to improve the lives of us humans who live on earth and the environment,” he said.

Dr Duncan Steel is a scientist at the Centre for Space Science Technology (CSST) and he knows a thing or two about the Universe. He has even had an asteroid named after him.

Steel is currently working on looking at how we can exploit satellite imagery for the good of New Zealand companies.

And CSST CEO Steve Cotter reckons this is where New Zealand can really have an impact.

“What we’re doing is using earth observation data to develop insights, focussing primarily on industries in the regions to get insights into how people could run their businesses more efficiently or effectively,” he said.

Steve Cotter

Steve Cotter Photo: Supplied

“What excites me is the vast number of opportunities to apply this data. We’ve always been looking from the ground up into space, but now we have the opportunity to look down and see from a different angle what’s happening on the earth.”

He said the data can give them insights into things like the best places to build new houses or it can show us how an earthquake changes the landscape.

One of the research programmes the CSST is involved in is called ECOSTRESS.

Scientist Dave Kelbe says from space we can measure the temperature of plants.

“The idea is to use the information to see how they respond to stress and water and work out how to improve the yield, while balancing the limited resources like water,” he said.

And Moritz Lehmann is working on a project which measures algal blooms in New Zealand lakes.

He said at the moment, we only monitor about 2 percent of New Zealand’s 3800 lakes. But satellite imagery means we can get a clearer picture of state of the problem and gain insights into how to manage it.

“I can sit in an armchair, open the computer, and look at data from not just one satellite but a whole series of them. It’s nothing short of a revolution,” he said.

“We have a lot more information than people are aware of and we need to use it to make smart decisions.”

Head of the New Zealand Space Agency Peter Crabtree says the space industry is really expansive and dynamic and he believes it could be a money-spinner for the country.

“It’s reasonable to think we could have a billion dollar space industry by 2025,” Dr Crabtree said.

The Agency is about to kick off a its first comparative analysis of the industry, so that will give us a clearer picture of where we stand in the world.

“We’ll look really good when it comes to having one reasonable satellite launch company that’s growing exceptionally fast,” said Crabtree.

He is talking about Rocket Lab, and said New Zealand has cemented itself as a great launching zone due to its geographic position in the world, stable democracy, advanced economy, high levels of skills and good regulatory environment.

He said in things like the development of a broader work force and availability of venture capital for space activities however, the country would get a could do better grade.

There is one area of the space economy he expects New Zealand to experience a lot of growth in.

“Bringing the ICT sector to space, thinking about the applications of space data and what that can be used for. How it can be brought into agriculture, agritech, hazard management, oceans management, fisheries management,” he said.

One company already turning a profit in the space industry is Awarua Ground Satellite Station.

Awarua Satellite Ground Station

Awarua Satellite Ground Station Photo: Supplied

Robin McNeill is manager of Ground Segment and Engineering at Awarua Satellite Ground Station and said theirs is a growth business with plenty of work in the pipeline.

He said there would be a lot of interesting things being launched in the coming years which couldmake a huge difference to our lives.

“Our phones are pretty smart now, but there is room for them to get a whole lot smarter.”

It is clear McNeill loves his industry.

"It’s a mix of business and excitement. Where else can you get job satisfaction from watching the International Space Station go over head and know WOW that’s us,” he said.

Robin McNeill at Awarua Satellite Ground Station

Robin McNeill at Awarua Satellite Ground Station Photo: Dave Allen, NIWA

No one is ruling out setting up a New Zealand colony in space but for now we’re playing to our strengths and, it appears, in this space race we’re off to a flying start.