New Zealand will get its own space mission control centre as the Government puts $26 million behind a climate-change-combating satellite.

But what is being described as our first state-funded journey into orbit, and a major step towards building a domestic space programme, won't be launching from Aotearoa.

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods announced on Wednesday the Government will be contributing to a joint mission with the United States' Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to launch a state-of-art, methane-tracking satellite.

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The EDF – a major not-for profit environmental advocacy group - says the MethaneSAT will able to monitor methane pollution from oil and gas around the world. The organisation will give the data out for free in a bid help battle climate change.

An artist's rendering of the MethaneSAT satellite.
An artist's rendering of the MethaneSAT satellite.

As part of the agreement, the satellite's five-year mission - launching in 2022 - will be run out of New Zealand-based command centre, which the Government will set up and run for about $10 million.

"It will enable us to grow our capabilities in the space sector and participate in future space missions," Woods said.

She said the operations would likely be based out of existing facilities in a university – although where has yet to be determined – both to save costs and to give local scientists better access to the data.

New Zealand's contribution to the mission will also aim to adapt the research to agricultural emissions, which it currently doesn't cover.

The announcement is major step for the New Zealand Space Agency, a department quietly set up within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment in 2016 and which has so far largely worked in policy and helping space-faring businesses.

Flying in space - an artist's rendering of the MethaneSAT satellite.
Flying in space - an artist's rendering of the MethaneSAT satellite.

University of Auckland physics department head Richard Easther said the announcement was a significant step towards building a space programme in New Zealand.

"Methane is a critical greenhouse gas and fully understanding its origins and atmospheric dynamics will be key to addressing climate change," he said.


"Maybe just as importantly, this mission is also what will hopefully be the first of a number of contributions New Zealand can make to major international space science projects ... Engaging in this project will undoubtedly build New Zealand's capacity to contribute, develop and lead space missions."

US-owned company Rocket Lab has been launching commercial satellites into orbit from its private base in the Hawke's Bay's Mahia Peninsula since last year, and Woods said its chief, Peter Beck, had been vital in setting up the deal with the EDF.

But MethaneSAT is too large for Rocket Lab's Electron launch vehicle – which is designed for small payloads - meaning the mission won't be able to launch from New Zealand.
The estimated total cost of the MethaneSAT project is about $88 million, according to MBIE's general manager of science, innovation and international, Peter Crabtree, most of which is being covered by the EDF.