Millions being spent on space tech in NZ — Here’s what’s at stake
With Kevin Jenkins
This article was first published in The New Zealand Herald on 2 November 2019.
Think of space, and you might think first of Mars, big-time state actors like Nasa and China’s CNSA, and fast-talking billionaire enthusiasts like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
But here in New Zealand, space entrepreneurs and educators are focusing on making the benefits of space technology meaningful for ordinary people back home on our Goldilocks planet.
Steve Cotter is CEO of Xerra Earth Observation Institute, based in Alexandra in Otago (for spaceship-spotters Xerra used to be the Centre for Space Science Technology, which was established with some seed money from the government). To infinity and beyond is fine as far as it goes, but Cotter emphasises a key reason for going up is to look back at Earth, and send back information that makes a difference to our daily lives.
Cotter said it’s not an overstatement to describe the current space industry as creating “a new dawn of knowledge”. We’re now able to use the information gathered by the satellites that Rocket Lab and others are putting up to create space data-derived products and services that help businesses and governments make smarter, better-informed decisions. The fields of application are wide and consequential — from agri-technology, to hazard management, meteorology, oceanography, and conservation.
HOW WE GOT HERE
Cotter is at pains to point out that this is now. This new data that’s being sent back to us already enables us to understand both our natural world and human behaviour at a scale not previously possible.
Cotter talked to me about how three major changes have brought us to this point and redefined what is possible in the space economy.
First, the costs of generating, storing and processing data have been decreasing exponentially. Next, the miniaturisation of technology and the commercialisation of space has encouraged a flurry of innovation, which has led to new sensor technology and increased satellite coverage of the Earth’s surface. Finally, machine learning and AI has enabled major advances in analysing data and identifying patterns, generating insights at a scale once thought impossible.
Thanks to those three shifts, organisations like Xerra can build automated tools that are able to ingest terabytes of data and efficiently analyse complex patterns, with the result that they can detect activities with much greater accuracy than human observers.
Making a difference now to the lives of New Zealanders, and to our economy and environment, is also part of the vision of the founders of SpaceBase. Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, Eric Dahlstrom and Rich Bodo set up SpaceBase two years ago through the Edmund Hillary Fellowship.
When I talk to Paat-Dahlstrom, a key phrase keeps cropping up — the “democratisation” of space. The organisation’s mission puts this at the centre — “to reduce inequality in the space industry through educational programmes, entrepreneurial activities, and community platforms, for those who need it most, starting in New Zealand”.
Their work to build New Zealand’s space ecosystem has started with some short-term initiatives like the NZ Space Directory and the NZ Space Calendar. They have global ambitions though, and are preparing to support similar SpaceBases in other parts of the world.
Yoseph Ayele, CEO of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship, testifies to how SpaceBase has been walking the walk in making the space industry more democratic and accessible.
In SpaceBase’s 2019 Impact Report he wrote: “One of their biggest contributions to the New Zealand ecosystem is making the space industry (a field that seems very unreachable for most) something that is accessible and valuable for people working in different sectors, such as climate science and agriculture. They evangelised the space opportunity to small regions outside of the big cities, and brought others along for their journey.”
One of the key SpaceBase initiatives this year has been the 2019 Aerospace Challenge, a collaboration between ChristchurchNZ, Airbus and MBIE. This year’s challenge was to “develop a product or service that detects, monitors or measures water or soil pollution using the very latest satellite and unmanned aircraft technology”.
The finalists included Christ’s College, which aimed to use satellite imaging systems to measure flow rates in Canterbury’s braided rivers, and Kea Aerospace’s project of using unpiloted high-altitude solar aircraft to capture high-quality image data to measure pollution.
THE LAKE WATCHERS
The winner of the 2019 Aerospace Challenge, announced in mid-October, was Christchurch-based Seequent, for its “cloud-based, global remote sensing solution for monitoring lake water health”.
According to Seequent, less than 2 per cent of New Zealand lakes are monitored for water quality. They say that their Lake Indicator Modelling System (SLIMS) can “capture water quality data across many hundreds of lakes at once and model and visualise it through time, to help freshwater scientists identify lake health changes as they occur”.
Daniel Wallace, the company’s GM for civil and environmental, said it’s simply not economical to visit all lakes to monitor adverse environmental impacts.
“But with satellite remote sensing every lake can be monitored virtually,” he said.
“Algal blooms, sediment events and other adverse changes in lake health, which could otherwise be unseen and unknown, suddenly emerge with our new monitoring solution. Subsequently these lakes could be visited to further investigate the health degradation.”
Wallace predicted Seequent could have a 30 per cent share of the international market for this form of monitoring within four years.
MONITORING WHALE POPULATIONS AND OCEAN HEALTH
As another example of what the latest in satellite imagery is now capable of, Paat-Dahlstrom, from SpaceBase, pointed to a recent report of it being used to monitor whale strandings much more accurately and easily.
An international team analysed satellite images of the area of a 2015 mass stranding of sei whales in Patagonia, Chile. The study indicated the previous count of 345 dead whale carcasses was an underestimate — possibly only half of the true figure. That count was by planes and boats several weeks after the strandings.
Satellite imagery offers the ability to monitor those remote coasts where whale strandings happen regularly, from the Falklands to New Zealand.
The analysis, using pictures from the Worldview-2 spacecraft, which orbits at 700km/s, was only a proof of principle exercise, but Dr Carlos Olavarria, from the international study team, pointed to the potential for the approach to be used operationally. The technology has improved since 2015; Worldview-2 now uses 30cm resolution images rather than 50cm.
The sharper resolution now available means that smaller species of whales could also be monitored. Automated monitoring and analysis would also offer the potential to detect whale strandings almost in real time. Scientists would be able to get to the scene earlier and so get a better understanding of the cause of the event. Accurate information and counts will also provide useful indicators not just of the status of whale populations themselves, but also of the wider ecosystem they’re part of, providing information about worsening ocean conditions for example.
SPACE TECH APPLIED TO PRECISION AGRICULTURE
Eric Dahlstrom, from SpaceBase, also pointed me to what’s happening in the area of “hyperspectral imaging” in New Zealand agriculture.
These hyperspectral cameras are being carried by aircraft, but the technology was developed for space exploration and military surveillance. It’s just another in a long string of space-focused inventions that we now use in daily life down here, like the CMOS sensor, or camera-on-a-chip, that makes our smartphone cameras possible (but not like Velcro and Teflon frying pans. Contrary to what I was told as a kid, those weren’t in fact Nasa inventions — NASA just used them).
Hyperspectral imaging technology is now being applied to provide information about, for example, the nutrient content of land. Professor of precision agriculture at Massey, Ian Yule, was quoted last year as describing the technology as “like turning the whole of New Zealand into a living lab, where you can observe exactly what is going on and describe it in greater detail than ever before”.
Prof Yule said the aerial camera “spots the wavelengths of plants and goes on to give the nutrient status of each area and where you might need, for instance, more phosphorous”. He said it can make New Zealand agriculture more efficient and profitable — but also more environmentally friendly.
BUILDING OUR SPACE INFRASTRUCTURE
An expanding space industry needs infrastructure, for example to help stop collisions up in the increasingly crowded spaces in low Earth orbit. There was recently another step forward for the New Zealand and global space infrastructure when the Silicon Valley space-mapping firm LeoLabs opened its new Kiwi Space Radar facility in Central Otago’s Naseby (about a 10-minute drive northeast from Ranfurly, and until now more famous for ice skating).
The Kiwi Space Radar is an international space tracking facility whose customers include both commercial satellite operators and also national regulatory and space agencies. It’s the third of these “next generation” radar facilities, but it’s the first in the southern hemisphere.
Most importantly, it’s the first in the world to be able to track objects smaller than 10cm in low Earth orbit. In fact, it can detect objects down to a gobsmacking 2cm. This means an estimated 250,000 additional objects will now be tracked, significantly reducing the risk of collisions in space. Those search and detect functions are all automated; there are no humans at the Kiwi Space Radar site.
LeoLabs is a leader in “LEO” (low Earth orbit) mapping and in SSA — that’s “Space Situational Awareness”, which is basically keeping track of where everything is up there, including satellites and orbital debris and natural “Near-Earth Objects” (NEOs) like asteroids and comets, as well as what the “space weather” conditions are (the Earth’s magnetosphere for example).
MBIE, which houses New Zealand’s own Space Agency, began a space R&D partnership with LeoLabs in September 2018. The head of the NZ Space Agency, Dr Peter Crabtree, said:
“At the outset of this partnership we were clear that a key outcome would be improving our understanding and capability in space situational awareness, an important step for the New Zealand Space Agency, particularly with respect to our international obligations as a launching state.”
We’re also seeing developments in the educational infrastructure for our space industry, with the University of Auckland investing in space technology. It launched its Programme for Space Systems targeted at undergraduates in 2016, and will soon launch Te Pūnaha Atea, the Auckland Space Institute, to work towards “a nationally-focused Space Systems Institute to coalesce academic expertise in space systems, and to connect academic researchers with industry, eventually contributing to the advancement of New Zealand’s space research development.”
PUBLIC POLICY AND REGULATION
It’s well understood that New Zealand’s public-policy settings and regulations for the space ecosystem are world-leading and fit-for-purpose. Peter Crabtree also talked recently about how the agency is developing a strategy with a focus on sustainability, agility and collaboration.
The Space Agency is also talking with other space agencies to lay the foundation for science and technology programmes to participate in global space missions, and is eyeing “the power of small” as a niche where we can excel.
Here in New Zealand, we’re uniquely placed to lead in applying these new technologies operationally to help government, businesses and industries around the globe. This isn’t a secret for key world players like the US — Rocket Lab, which launches from Mahia, is a US subsidiary, and Nasa launches its super-pressure balloon programme from Wanaka.
But what makes New Zealand such a great place for the “New Space” industry?
Steve Cotter, from Xerra, talked me through a string of advantages that set New Zealand up for this.
First off, Steve says, “our remote location in the southern hemisphere provides the perfect opportunity for calibrating and validating satellite data in a vastly under-sampled part of the world”.
For one thing, although we’re relatively small, New Zealand has a wide array of land covers and atmospheric conditions, with diverse geology, topography, soil types and human-made pressures. These provide useful challenges for the New Zealand space industry to learn from in developing global applications for Earth observation technology.
Again, despite our smallish land area, we have one of the biggest Exclusive Economic Zones in the world, with search and rescue responsibilities covering the seas from Antarctica to the equator. This provides a huge and varied testing ground for calibrating and validating data.
With few governmental layers in Aotearoa, it’s also easier to get things done here. For example, getting clearances to fly airborne sensors and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) is relatively straightforward compared with more congested airspaces.
Finally, Steve talked about the importance of “ground truth” — a reliable set of geodetic and other data at hand (like all those black-and-white trig stations) that we can use to test the accuracy of the satellite observation data and the analysis derived from it.
“New systems and algorithms need rigorous ground truth so we can understand failures and improve scalability, beyond the lab and into operational use. New Zealand is covered with ground truth, with geodetic markers and other elevation survey networks — and all free for anyone to use.”
Together, those factors make up a unique opportunity for New Zealand to be an Earth Observation leader.
The Government has been keen to highlight New Zealand’s strong advantages here. As well as having a modern, space-fit regulatory regime and “nimble, stable and reputable government”, it has emphasised our unique geography and the advantages of being at the end of the world — our clear skies and seas, and relatively low levels of air traffic allow for frequent launches. “New Zealand has some of the largest selection of launch angles (azimuths) for rocket launches in the world.”
A MAJOR OPPORTUNITY
Here at the bottom — or top? — of our blue planet, this major opportunity to be an Earth Observation leader could be very significant.
The effects of climate change mean we are increasingly vulnerable in two of our core industries: meat and tourism. If we can achieve our potential to become a world leader in space-based services, this would mean a major new impulse to economic success.
But just as importantly, the smart use of space-derived data could also provide sustainable solutions to some existential environmental threats here in Aotearoa and globally.
Spacetech is already materially improving the lives of us lucky enough to live here: it’s helping to look after our environment, it’s improving our productivity, it’s leading to new and exciting businesses, and it’s creating lots of new and skilled jobs.
About the author
Kevin has undertaken a wide range of assignments in the science and innovation, economic development, and tertiary education sectors — for example, work on the establishment of Callaghan Innovation (New Zealand’s advanced technology institute). He has worked a lot in the justice sector, including leading a major programme targeted at leveling off the increase in the prison muster, and another at ensuring that the cost of the sector is stabilised.
Kevin is a regular contributor to the New Zealand Herald.