Fifty years after man first walked on the Moon, science reporter Jamie Morton looks at how New Zealand is forging its own credible place in the global space scene.
The year 1969 boasted a handful of highlights for New Zealand.
The Save Manapouri campaign kicked off, banks computerised money trading, Taranaki's Maui gas field was discovered, the Auckland Harbour Bridge was widened to eight lanes, and the National won its fourth term.
And then there was the Moon landing - Kiwis were able to witness the spectacle after videotape coverage was flown from Sydney by the RNZAF, and a microwave link was put together to allow its simultaneous broadcast throughout the country.
Astronomer Grant Christie, who was 17 years old at the time, remembered well that incredible moment.
At that time in New Zealand - then with a population of some 2.8 million, along with some 60 million sheep - Kiwis couldn't have conceived of having a space programme of our own.
Christie pointed out that our contribution had typically come indirectly through bright minds had left our shores to become part of bigger outfits - namely Wellington-born rocket scientist Bill Pickering, who headed California's famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory and essentially pioneered space exploration.
Leap forward to the OECD's latest survey of the global space economy, and you'll find New Zealand, albeit still with 5.6 sheep for every person, is singled out among other countries.
Last year, the country was ranked fourth in the entire world for the number of rocket launches - something that's owed to the phenomenon that is Rocket Lab.
On the back of Rocket Lab has come a new regulatory regime, administered by the Government's freshly launched New Zealand Space Agency.
Its head, Peter Crabtree, was serious when he told the Herald the agency was working with the sector and other agencies to make New Zealand "the world's number one New Space nation".
"We are less constrained by historic approaches to space largely driven by government space programmes," he said.
"Our sector is rapidly becoming a world-leading example of 'New Space' – marked out by being innovative, responsive, and commercially-led.
"We are building on the fast start achieved by Rocket Lab to make a clear offer to the global space sector: bring your ideas, people, and capital here and you will find the best place in the world to innovate concepts, frequently launch payloads into space, and then rapidly cycle back improvements and extensions into the next generation of New Space businesses."
The Government would be playing a vital role in this, Crabtree said, and needed to maintain the world's best regulatory environment for space activity, without sacrificing safety and integrity.
Crabtree added that New Zealand now had major partnerships with several overseas space agencies either being implemented - like that with NASA and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) - or about to commence, such as with Australian Space Agency.
"Under our partnership agreement with DLR for example we will enable collaboration between New Zealand scientists and their German counterparts to develop new data applications or technologies," he said.
"We also play a role in helping Kiwis see the benefits and opportunities of space," he said.
"We need a pipeline of talent to do everything from building rockets to using space data, and we need New Zealanders to be excited about everything New Zealand is doing in space."
Rocketing NZ into space
Go back in time again - but only to just over a decade ago.
A starry-eyed, frizzy-haired inventor named Peter Beck, who came up as an apprentice at Fisher & Paykel, was peddling the crazy idea of launching rockets from New Zealand.
Not long after, Rocket Lab became the first company in the Southern Hemisphere to reach space, having shot a prototype from Great Mercury Island.
And now, the company – domiciled in the US, but keeping a new assembly plant and a 400-strong team in Auckland – is a bonafide, globally-recognised player in the world's space scene, with backing from major investors like Lockheed Martin.
As Beck recently put it: "Generally it's countries that go to space - not companies."
The secret to Rocket Lab's success lies in that pluckiness: and it's already reached its goal of putting small commercial satellites into orbit for a fraction of the cost of established operations.
That's all been made possible by its Electron rocket, every detail of which has been designed to offer small satellites rapid, reliable and affordable access to space.
The world's first fully carbon composite orbital launch vehicle, the Electron is capable of delivering payloads of 150kg to a 500km sun-synchronous orbit – and its success last year was met with adulation from the world's space community.
It's powered by an engineering marvel in its own right – the 3D printed, electric pump-fed, Rutherford engine, weighing just 35kg.
Today, 70 Rutherford engines have been launched to space on Electron missions from Rocket Lab's Launch Complex 1 on the East Coast's remote and spectacular Mahia Peninsula.
To meet a growing launch manifest, Rocket Lab has recently expanded its propulsion manufacturing and test teams, and also boosted its 3D printing facilities in Huntington Beach to produce 200 Rutherford engines in the next 12 months.
The engines will be integrated onto Electron vehicles for lift-off from Mahia, as well as Launch Complex 2 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, in the US state of Virginia.
Eyes are also on Rocket Lab's next big thing, the Photon.
That's an improved version of its kick-stage, or "bus" that takes small satellites into their final orbit – and forms part of its overall goal to handle as much of a launch as possible for its customers.
The company, which charges about NZ $8.7m per launch, aimed to launch a rocket each week by next year.
A home-made satellite
Rocket Lab's success is about to help realise another home-grown innovation – a satellite built entirely by university students.
The company is soon to launch a "cubesat" - largely made from on the shelf materials and big enough to hold a coffee mug - after a few years of development by University of Auckland students.
The university has been running a design competition, which had attracted hundreds of students and already spawned a spin-out company, Zenno Astronautics.
"What the future holds for our current generation of students is uncertain," the programme's director, Jim Hefkey, said.
"However whatever skills they develop, or in whatever role they find themselves, what is certain is that they will have to work in multidisciplinary teams to achieve their goals.
"The competition provides an opportunity for them to develop the team work and communication skills to meet one of the most exacting challenges imaginable: design, build, launch and operate a spacecraft."
The cubesat challenge is part of a larger university effort to develop space science and space technology.
Te Pūnaha Ātea - the Auckland Space Institute has been quietly establishing itself over the last few months.
University of Auckland researchers Dr John Cater and Associate Professor Nicholas Rattenbury are deeply involved with this venture, having won funding to work on small satellite plasma propulsion systems, space-based synthetic aperture radars and innovative heat shielding materials.
Planet hunting and super-scopes
The search for new worlds – and the tantalising possibility of life-supporting ones – has long fuelled our fascination with space.
And many Kiwis might not know that our own scientists have been helping discover planets beyond the solar system using a mind-boggling technique called gravitational microlensing.
This takes advantage of the light-bending effects of massive objects predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity.
It occurs when a foreground star, the lens, randomly aligns with a distant background star, the source, as seen from Earth.
As the lensing star drifts along in its orbit around the galaxy, the alignment shifts over days to weeks, changing the apparent brightness of the source.
The precise pattern of these changes provides astronomers with clues about the nature of the lensing star - including any planets it may host.
Astronomers – among them Rattenbury, Massey University's Associate Professor Ian Bond, and Canterbury University's Associate Professor Michael Albrow – have been sifting through data gathered from telescopes around the world to discover planets of light-years away.
Bond and Rattenbury are members of the international Microlensing Observations in Astrophysics (MOA) collaboration that uses New Zealand's largest optical telescope to peer at millions of stars every clear night from the University of Canterbury's Mt John Observatory at Tekapo.
Bond has developed sophisticated image analysis software that's needed to scour the images it captures, while Rattenbury has been helping analyse the data, checking any signals that hint at possible planets.
Every now and then has come a big discovery: the first planet ever found through microlensing, reported in 2012, was spotted from Mt John.
Microlensing has also revealed a two-planet system that was essentially a scaled-down version of our own solar system, and the first Earth-massed exoplanet found to orbit just one star in a binary star system.
Without microlensing, scientists wouldn't know that worlds with a similar mass to Neptune are the most likely planet to form in the icy realms of planetary systems.
Meanwhile, University of Auckland scientists will eventually be helping handle a torrent of data flowing from the massive Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), now being built in northern Chile.
Equipped with the world's largest digital camera at 3200-megapixels, the LSST will take repeated snapshots of the southern sky - each one the size of 40 full moons.
Over its 10-year lifespan, the data generated by the project will be measured in petabytes, or one quadrillion bytes, and will be handled by teams of astronomers around the world.
The Kiwi scientists will use the data to find planets circling other stars, test theories of the origin and evolution of the universe, and to search for entirely new classes of astronomical objects.
The other big "super-scope" being constructed – and based on completely different technology – is the enormous Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.
To be comprised of dishes and millions of dipole radio receptors across deserts in Australia and South Africa, the SKA is also poised to answer fundamental questions about the universe – and even aid the search for other life.
AUT radio astronomers have been closely involved in the SKA's development, and New Zealand was a founding a member of the global alliance to build it, but the Government this month announced it would back out of the project on the basis of what it would cost to remain in it.
Unravelling the cosmos
One of the most jaw-dropping revelations of the last few years was the confirmation of strange cosmic ripples that Einstein had theorised more than a century ago.
And it's arguable that the first physical observation of what are called gravitational waves – a Nobel Prize-winning feat - might not have been possible without the foundations laid by the influential Kiwi mathematician Professor Roy Kerr.
These waves are among the most perplexing features of the universe; comparable to sound, they zoom through space at the speed of light.
Because space-time is essentially a four dimensional fabric, able to be pushed or pulled as objects move through it, gravitational waves are like the ripples produced when a bowling ball is dropped on to a trampoline.
More importantly, they've allowed scientists how to perceive the universe in an entirely new way.
Much of the work under-pinning that first detection of the waves – emanating from two black holes colliding, and merging into one spinning black hole - can be traced back to the seminal work of Kerr 50 years ago.
Gravitational wave signals from merging black holes can be thought of as a hooter that suddenly sounds at a specific place in the sky, University of Auckland cosmologist Professor Richard Easther said.
"But events in the early universe can fill the universe with a permanent background hum of gravitational waves coming from all directions in the sky."
Over the last 15 years, Easther has played a major role in understanding these "all sky" signals that can be generated in the first instants after the Big Bang, which created the universe 13.8 billion years ago.
"These signals could be key targets for the next generation of gravitational wave experiments and can also leave traces in the microwave background," Easther explained.
"If detected, these signals can provide a window into the universe a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang."
His colleague, University of Auckland astrophysicist Dr JJ Eldridge, has a Marsden-funded research programme looking at what we can learn about stars and galaxies by observing the gravitational waves coming from mergers between black holes and neutron stars.
These objects are the endpoints of stellar evolution, so by working backwards from the gravitational wave signals, scientists could gain insight into the ways that the contents of the universe have evolved since the Big Bang.
Kiwis are also involved in the consortium behind the European Space Agency-funded LISA mission, which aims to launch the world's first space-based gravitational wave observatory into orbit by the 2030s.
The New Zealand group is led by University of Auckland statistician Associate Professor Renate Meyer, who specialise in developing sensitive algorithms that can carefully separate delicate astrophysical signals from noisy backgrounds.
Separately, AUT's Associate Professor Willem van Straten works on using radio observations of pulsars — rapidly spinning radio "lighthouses" - with a goal to reveal very low frequency gravitational waves.
Pulsars can be used as super-stable clocks, and passing gravitational waves cause them rock slowly backwards and forwards in space, which leads to tiny changes in the "ticking" of these pulsars as seen from earth.
The worldwide pulsar community has yet to detect this signal - but it's widely seen as a promising window into low-frequency gravitational wave signals.
Gravitational wave detectors are increasingly making use of "squeezed light" — special states of light that have less quantum noise than regular light, in an ongoing effort to improve their sensitivity.
While New Zealand researchers are not currently working on the detectors themselves, the underlying physics of squeezed light was notably pioneered by Napier-born Dan Walls - one of the namesakes of today's Dodd-Walls Centre for Photonics and Quantum Technologies.
Even outside gravitational waves, our scientists have long been punching above their weight in fundamental astrophysics.
Globally, Kerr's legacy sits alongside that of Dr Beatrice Tinsley, remembered for her ground-breaking studies of how populations of stars age and affect the observable qualities of galaxies.
There's no shortage of other Kiwis boundaries today.
The University of Canterbury's Associate Professor Jenni Adams, for instance, has long been involved with the ICECUBE project, which uses a cubic kilometre of ice at the South Pole as a sensitive particle detector.
Adams and colleagues have instrumented the ice to detect flashes of light coming from interactions between neutrinos and the ice; these ghostlike particles are produced in high-energy astrophysical events.
So far, they've found some of the most energetic particles ever detected, and these are likely to be emitted in super-energetic events in other galaxies.
The next generation of ICECUBE will also be a sensitive dark matter detector and will have the ability to test key ideas in particle physics.
Another University of Canterbury scientist, Professor David Wiltshire, is testing novel ideas suggesting that dark energy — the elusive substance that fills the universe and appears to be accelerating its expansion — is actually a mirage created by the inhomogeneous nature of the present-day universe
It's a controversial proposal, but Wiltshire is a key member of small group of astrophysicists worldwide working on this idea.
Easther also works across a range of problems in fundamental cosmology, with a Marsden-funded project to study the nature of dark matter - and a long-standing interest in understanding how physical processes in the very early universe set the stage for the formation of stars and galaxies we observe today.