Space has suddenly become big in New Zealand. Rocket Lab is just one example of what is starting to look like exponential growth in commercial activity, research is following a similar path, and the Government is active in policy and regulation.
One space narrative is about disappointment. The 1950s and 1960s were about possibilities, and landing on the Moon seemed to prove that the science fiction of the 20th century really was just history written before it happened. But the promise of space seemed to peter out.
The Apollo moon programme came to look more like a peak or end-point, rather than the trial run for Mars some in the space programme had hoped it would be.
After Apollo, "space" seemed to shift back to being more of a popular culture theme.
For example, this article is named after a famous song, album and movie – "Space is the Place" – by one of my favourite jazz weirdos, Sun Ra (who was adamant he came from Saturn). Space became a dominant meme in pop and rock music too, as well as a mainstay in novels and films.
But the current flowering of space-related investment and activity shows the human fascination with the real-world possibilities of space exploration never went away. What's more, a surprisingly large piece of all that space business is happening right here in Aotearoa.
Back to real (outer-)world possibilities
Simonetta Di Pippo is the director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), as well as former head of human spaceflight for the European Space Policy Observatory and director of human spaceflight at the European Space Agency (great job titles!). She spoke in New Zealand last year about international co-operation in space.
The breadth of international space agreements and their related bureaucracies may surprise you.
The foundation is the Outer Space Treaty, which was 50 years old in 2017. That set out four principles that are familiar to us all: exploration and use will be for all countries; no country can claim sovereignty; no weapons of mass destruction; and states are responsible for national space activities regardless of whether they are governmental or private.
Read more: "It's business time" for Rocket Lab
UNOOSA exists to promote international co-operation to achieve development goals. In other words, it's very much about how space technology can contribute to improving the lives of humans on Earth, rather than, say, exploration for its own sake.
UNOOSA also keeps a register of objects we've launched into space. The list is growing exponentially, with at last count about 1400 satellites operated by 60 states. There's also an even greater number of pieces of what Devo called Space Junk in their 1978 hit of that name.
Another space organisation is 'COPUOS', the UN General Assembly's Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, which — hold your breath — has developed five treaties and five principles, all about encouraging research and the study of legal issues. New Zealand joined COPUOS on January 1, 2017.
Then there is the International Committee on GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System), which promotes voluntary co-operation related to civil satellites. The average Kiwi uses satellite technology about 25 times a day, depending on how often we check the weather or use GPS etc, and much of all that is overseen by the GNSS.
New Zealand's own space industry
In 2018 there are now around 70 different space-related businesses and other entities in New Zealand. Reflecting the scale and pace of development here, the last two years have also seen the development of our own space infrastructure and regulatory framework.
The New Zealand Space Agency was founded in April 2016 to provide advice on space policy, regulation and business development. (Australia also established a space agency in 2017, bringing the number of national space agencies to more than 70.)
Our Space Agency has signed a bilateral agreement with the US for space launchers using US technology.
The Space Agency also promotes innovation in what its website describes as "areas where New Zealand has real strengths developing and applying space-based data such as agri-technology, hazard management, oceanography and meteorology".
The Centre for Space Science Technology (CSST) is a new independent research institute based in Alexandra.
Funded initially by government, the vision of CSST is "to enable thriving regional industries across New Zealand that have gained or maintained an internationally competitive advantage by making smarter decisions using state-of-the-art products and services that capitalise on the availability of space-based data".
In practice, CSST will "design, build, launch, and operate satellites to provide niche space-based measurements not available elsewhere", host and broker satellite data, and create new products like maps of soil moisture using data from its own and other satellites.
Let's not brush over this too lightly: CSST's satellites may just be "CubeSats", fist-sized cubes, but they still mean Aotearoa now has its own space programme. It may not mean a Kiwi will be the first human to walk on Mars, but it does mean we're in the game.
It's not like this is the only recent major investment in space research either. For example, Aotearoa missed out on hosting Square Kilometre Array (SKA) infrastructure, but is involved in how to extract information from the SKA data.
The SKA is exciting: thousands of dishes and antennae in the deserts of South Africa and Australia creating the world's largest radio telescope. It will be 50 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope. You can find out more at SKA Telescope.
Nyriad, a New Zealand start-up based in Cambridge, has developed a breakthrough technology that looks to be the solution to SKA's problem of how to store, process and analyse astronomical streaming bits of data, collected throughout a multi-decade project when no supercomputer capable of handling the task exists on the planet.
Even better, it's got the coolest description: the world's first exascale computing company.
Nyriad, which recently raised a major new injection of capital, has nearly 100 staff and plans to increase to 180 within a year (NBR, 16 February 2018).
What's more they want to remain in the Waikato, and plan to draw much of their talent from Waikato University and elsewhere in Australasia.
Nyriad's founders have an eye for an eventual workforce of 500, and all in Cambridge – this kind of job-rich venture in a provincial town is an indication of what our space-related industry could mean for New Zealand.
The NZ Space Challenge 2018, with a cash prize of $40,000 and the promise of start-up support, has a fascinating angle that ties space exploration to unsolved problems in navigating our own planet's surface (see www.nzspacechallenge.com).
The Challenge is seeking innovative technological solutions to navigation problems in Antarctica, but as an analogue for future space exploration.
Mapping safe routes is key to navigating the Antarctic safely and efficiently, and the Challenge is seeking applications that can, among other things, leverage space technology to solve these Earth-bound navigation challenges.
The Challenge, which will be judged in May this year, is looking for early practical results, including a prototype, and evidence of impact within two years.
The Challenge is building on recent achievements in Antarctic exploration, notably the October 2017 expedition led by Dr Daniel Price of Canterbury University.
The expedition – "the first New Zealand traverse of Antarctica since Edmund Hillary and his tractors in 1958" – made use of satellite technology to guide a safe route through the continent's deep crevasses (Newshub, 7 February 2018).
And finally in New Zealand space news, the German Aerospace Centre has announced that New Zealand is a top contender for a new satellite ground base for the Centre's 'Tandem L' programme, which will generate 3D images when the satellites go up around 2022 (Radio NZ, 7 March 2018).
One factor in New Zealand's favour is that we're almost exactly on the other side of the planet from Germany. A decision from the German government is expected later in 2018.
Time for our own space regulatory regime
New Zealand's new Outer Space and High Altitude Act 2017 came into force in December last year, establishing a regulatory regime to ensure the safe, responsible and secure use of space from Aotearoa.
In 'Space law in New Zealand', an in-depth article in the November 2017 Policy Quarterly, Kirsty Hutchison and colleagues explain that in the decades when all space activity was carried out by states, New Zealand could fulfil its space treaty obligations without needing its own national space legislation.
But in this new era of space entrepreneurs and cheaper, more accessible space technology, policymakers saw the need for a regulatory regime – one that would not only manage associated risks and ensure we meet our treaty obligations, but also encourage innovation and the development of a New Zealand space industry.
Technology and international standards are evolving quickly, and any space regulation framework needs to be flexible to keep up.
They explain that the new act avoids detailed rules and requirements itself, and instead sets up a performance-based regime where regulators can make more tailored decisions in individual cases for licences and approvals.
The new act allows for many of the detailed requirements to be included in regulations (for example, requirements for orbital debris management), which can of course be changed more quickly and readily than primary legislation (acts).
The new regime also allows for overseas licences to be recognised by New Zealand decision-makers when granting licences for space facilities and activities like launches, which will help reduce compliance costs for the industry.
They point out that, tellingly, the responsible minister for the new act is the Minister for Economic Development. New Zealand already has one foot firmly in the space game, and the new regulatory framework is clearly aimed at ensuring the industry here continues to innovate and expand in exciting ways.
Driving innovation across technologies and industries
When she spoke in NZ, UNOOSA's Simonetta Di Pippo explained that space-related activity is now valued at US$320 billion.
Rocket Lab means Aotearoa is one of only 11 countries to launch its own satellites, and the first to launch from a fully private orbital launch range.
Aside from the immediate economic impacts, the space industry is acknowledged as driving innovation across a range of technologies and industries.
The NZ Space Agency points out that "Our place in the South Pacific means we have clear skies, clear seas and some of the greatest selection of launch angles".
It's plain too that the contribution of our own Centre for Space Science Technology will expand in ways not yet envisaged. Its CubeSats could provide live-time data about crops, snow conditions, and soil conditions.
Link this to data from surface sensors and you'd have a truly turbocharged Internet of Things. Di Pippo offered some examples of Earth applications for space innovation that advance UN Development Goals and provide commercial opportunities – they included tracking air composition, tracking sea ice and sea levels, tele-medicine, enabling smart cities, and disaster preparation and mitigation.
Sun Ra heavily influenced New Zealand bands like Earth Telephone in the 1980s and Orchestra of Spheres today, but the influence of Nasa and other programmes is just as obvious in our science and engineering communities, and increasingly in business as NZ firms compete globally and, well, extra-globally.
- Kevin Jenkins is managing director of professional service firm MartinJenkins, a director of digital firm Quanton, and a regional judge for the Space Challenge.