By SIMON COLLINS science reporter

New Zealand is building its first space satellite and, perhaps appropriately for a small country, it's about the size of a football.

The cube-shaped box measures just 20cm across, not counting the four 35cm transmitting antennae.

It will weigh 5kg to 10kg and will cost only $20,000 to build. But it will need a further $100,000 to be put into orbit in about 2005, probably piggybacking on the launch of a much bigger satellite in Russia.

For 63-year-old retired naval engineer Fred Kennedy, KiwiSat is the climax of more than 40 years as an amateur radio enthusiast which began when he built his first radio at the age of 19.

"This is an absolute dream come true," he said.

KiwiSat will be one of about 30 "Oscar" satellites, or "orbiting satellites carrying amateur radio", serving amateur radio enthusiasts around the world.

It will also have room for one or two scientific experiments. Dr Scott Whineray, a senior physics lecturer at Massey University's Albany campus who has provided technical support, said KiwiSat could study ozone or fluctuations in solar particles.

A similar Malaysian satellite feeds images and information into the Kuala Lumpur planetarium, as well as helping with weather forecasting and mapping.

New Zealand got involved when scientists working for the European aid programme at Trinity College, Dublin, asked Dr Whineray if Massey could provide a Southern Hemisphere receiving station for emails from four African countries transmitted via a Portuguese microsatellite.

Massey agreed to chip in half the $20,000 which it cost to build a small receiving station on the Albany campus. Mr Kennedy, who retired from the Devonport dockyard three years ago, was brought in to design and run it.

"In Africa, the use is to connect field hospitals and research stations out in the bush that need access to email and don't have a telephone system," he said.

Emails from the remote users in Ghana, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe are transmitted in bunches to the Portuguese satellite when it passes over Africa, then downloaded and fed into the world phone network from one of the three receiving stations in Dublin, Washington and Albany.

After helping with that project, Mr Kennedy and other members of the 60-strong New Zealand amateur satellite group Amsat-ZL proposed building a Kiwi satellite.

Like other Oscars, it will go into a low Earth orbit about 800km up, well below commercial satellites which are about 30,000km above the Earth. Solar panels encasing cadmium-nickel or lithium-iron batteries will give it a life of three to four years.

"It was a bit ambitious because we didn't have the infrastructure - the aerospace industry and so on," Mr Kennedy said.

"Most of them in the US and Europe are put together with the scrapings off the floor from Lockheed Martin and Boeing and all those big companies.

"We need small quantities of space-quality paint, but the minimum available is a pint. I need two brushfuls, so the cost will be 10 times the cost of a standard amount at least."

In practice, he plans to call in favours for work he has done in the past for other amateur satellite groups overseas.

"I have already got indications thatthey will help," he said.

Massey is helping with some costs, and Safe Air and other local companies are giving materials.

"We are going to be looking for computer programming capacity and so on, probably from radio amateurs but not necessarily - volunteers are horrendously hard to get," Mr Kennedy said.

"We are always looking for someone to help us. Frankly, it's expensive for them. It's only tiny quantities, but it makes it possible to do it.

"The fact that we can get a satellite going at all, when you think about it, it's a miracle. And it will fly. We are determined."