Eye on the sky: Awarua Station

By Anthony Doesburg

Who knew New Zealand had a space programme? In truth, with the exception of Auckland company Rocket Lab's launch of a rocket 100km into the sky last November, we can't claim to have tried visiting the inky void.

But in the depths of Southland, a small facility is helping unmanned European Space Agency missions take supplies to the International Space Station. Part of the facility's essential infrastructure is a wireless broadband connection.

The first of the Ariane 5 ATVs (automated transfer vehicle), called Jules Verne, was launched in March 2008 and in mid-December a second, the Johannes Kepler, will lift off from French Guiana. It will carry drinking water, oxygen and rocket fuel, among other necessities.

When it does, Awarua Station, situated just off the road between Invercargill and Bluff, will come to life, with space agency technicians on hand to monitor the rocket's flight.

Calculations showed the location was the perfect place from which to track the ATVs. However, before the space agency came calling on Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt, there was nothing there.

No problem, said Venture Southland, the province's regional development agency.

"We built it, they paid for it," says Robin McNeill, Venture Southland's enterprise project manager.

Making the arrangement all the sweeter, the space agency has since handed back Awarua Station.

"They realised they didn't want to own real estate on the other side the planet and asked if we wanted it."

The site was chosen because it is far enough south for radio tracking of the ATVs, and remote enough for there to be no radio interference to disrupt the signal. Something was lacking, however: a phone line for broadband services.

That was also solved in Southland style. As a legacy of the previous government's Project Probe rural broadband effort, the province has a Woosh Wireless network, which provides Awarua Station with internet access.

"Otherwise it was going to cost a fortune to connect it up," says McNeill.

Since the station was built, Swedish and American space interests - including the company that photographs Earth for Google - have also sought its services. So between Ariane 5 launches, the internet connection is being used for a number of radio science projects - from measuring lightning up to 6000km away, to collecting radio noise data.

Without broadband, McNeill says, none of it could even have been dreamed of.

- NZ Herald

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