How do you stop satellites slamming into each other? Or check, from space, how a big earthquake has just warped our coastlines?

They're some of the questions scientists will tackle in six space-focused projects that each just won $500,000 Government grants.

One of them, led by Swarm NZ, will investigate how collisions in an increasingly crowded orbit can be averted, with an aim to create a cutting-edge new software platform for satellite operators.

Because there was no version of an air traffic controller in space, orbital manoeuvres to avoid potential collisions were left up to each operator to manage.


While accurate information about where satellites and debris were located in space was becoming increasingly available, operators still needed technology that could translate that data into strategies.

The programme would look at what was needed to design "collision avoidance systems" for small spacecraft - along with the manoeuvring capabilities needed to lower probability of collision.

The software – developed in collaboration with satellite and orbital debris tracking company LeoLabs – would first be tested on satellites in low-earth orbit, and then in orbit itself.

Another project, meanwhile, aimed to keep an eye on New Zealand and its ocean estate from space much more frequently.

Currently, big satellites used for earth observation, like the TanDEM-X radar satellites, tended to pass over a target region once every 10 days or more.

The project saw the solution to better coverage in small CubeSats fitted with miniaturised synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) systems.

With that capability, these nimbler satellites could be relied upon, in numbers, to make more passes over New Zealand, monitoring our coastlines and seas, and even looking for physical changes directly after a big natural disaster.

Other programmes, just funded through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Catalyst: Strategic Space Fund, would develop better satellite mission control technology and even enable new biological experiments to be carried out in space.


MBIE's international science partnerships manager Simon Rae expected the $3m investment would boost New Zealand's space sector capability, by building new partnerships with major global players.

"These partnerships enable New Zealand's researchers to gain access to a wider range of experience and resources than they can currently access domestically."

The new projects, expected to begin later this month, come as New Zealand will soon get its own space mission control centre, with the Government putting $26 million behind a climate-change-combating satellite.

What's being described as our first state-funded journey into orbit will be a joint mission with the United States' Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to launch a state-of-art, methane-tracking satellite, dubbed the MethaneSAT.