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New Zealand and German Researchers Team Up for Space Exploration

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Recently, the University of Auckland and German space experts are partnering for research into making the most of carbon fibre for spacecraft and laser light technology in the transmission of data to Earth. The projects are part of a joint research programme between the New Zealand Space Agency (NZSA)and the German Aerospace Center, known as the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR).

Since 2017, the NZSA and the DLR have been cooperating intensively in space research. This time around, eight joint research projects in the fields of Earth observation, propulsion and radar have now been launched in a recent virtual meeting. Said launch was attended by Andrew Johnson (Space Policy & Regulatory Systems) from the NZSA and Anke Pagels-Kerp (Divisional Board Member for Space) and Susann Groß (Head of Space Research and Technology Programme) from DLR.

The use of carbon fibre for spacecraft and laser light technology are two of eight projects awarded a share of $8 million from the Ministry of Business and Innovation’s Catalyst Fund. Said funding is meant specifically to support international science and innovation that benefits New Zealand.

The university-based projects are led by Associate Professor John Cater, from the Department of Engineering Science in the Faculty of Engineering, and Dr Nick Rattenbury, from the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Science. Both researchers have been working with the DLR since 2017.

Carbon fibre composites offer many advantages over the metals traditionally used in space. They are lightweight and offer tremendous flexibility on how they can be used for complex parts that have different mechanical requirements. Our research will be about how these materials survive and perform in space-like conditions and what happens to them on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Dr John Cater, New Zealand Space Agency

Various studies have revealed that carbon fibre reinforced polymers have a specific strength that is almost 2.6 times greater than the strongest steel (maraging steel) and almost 3.6 times the specific strength of aluminium 7075-T6. That kind of strength should benefit space launch vehicles and deployable structures such as solar panels and antennas that open once a spacecraft reaches its destination.

Dr Rattenbury’s project is about the use of laser light technology, called free-space optical communications to transmit data from spacecraft down to Earth, specifically to a DLR component that will be installed at the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory at Takapō. He explained that typically getting information from space has involved radio waves. If successful, using laser light means that space explorers can transmit more information more securely. Further, he discloses that as an optical astronomer, collecting information from stars is not new to him. This time his research is about collecting huge amounts of information from fast-moving spacecraft.

The two sets of space researchers should learn a lot from each other. Germany’s space endeavours have been long-established. To date, the DLR, a research-only organisation, has a staff of more than 10,000 and an annual budget reported to be over €3 billion (NZ$5 billion).

But though it is rather young in the industry, New Zealand space exploration has its own advantages. A lot of small companies from Aoteroa, for instance, have been supplying the space industry for years. That can mean that as a small community with a nimble infrastructure, great things can happen quickly. And that, as the country has shown in the past years, can be a good thing in the exploration of space.

It’s not the first time Wellington has shown it’s ready to do what it takes to get ahead in technology. In the era when the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.) is happening, New Zealand has indicated to further its Artificial Intelligence under ethical means first and foremost, as reported on OpenGov Asia.


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