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New Zealand: Superconducting Magnet Tech Demonstrator in Space

The University of Wellington’s Paihau-Robinson Research Institute and an astronautics company based in Texas have announced a partnership to launch a new superconducting magnet technology demonstrator to test a novel type of space propulsion.

Paihau-Robinson selected the Houston-based hosted-payload provider to launch a superconducting magnet technology demonstrator to the International Space Station (ISS). According to a statement, the Institute is undertaking a five-year research programme into the application of its proprietary magnet technology to a type of electric space thruster, applied-field magneto plasma dynamic (AF-MPD) thrusters. There is currently only one example of a similar thruster being flown in space, with the mass and power requirements of magnetic components being a key technological barrier.  The Institute intends to leverage its advancements in high-temperature superconducting (HTS) magnet development to overcome these obstacles.

The Primary Investigator and Institute Director, Nick Long, stated that the research leverages Paihau-Robinson’s twenty-year track record in HTS magnet technology to drastically reduce the mass and power consumption of these thrusters, demonstrating a viable pathway to commercial applications. The researchers believe they could provide propulsion solutions for large spacecraft instead of electric thrusters.

The payload will launch to the ISS where it will be installed into the private player’s external platform by astronauts onboard the station. Engineers on the ground will then operate the magnet over several months-demonstrating the ability to generate a core magnetic field thousands of times stronger than that of the Earth, along with shielding to ensure the safety and stability of surrounding equipment.

The technology has a variety of space applications, including helping to control a spacecraft’s orientation in orbit with magnetorquers (which use a strong electromagnet to ‘push’ against the Earth’s magnetic field) and reaction wheels (which store angular momentum in a spinning wheel). Also, radiation shielding and ballistic re-entry shielding.

The Project Manager, Avinash Rao, explained that operation in a relevant space environment is an important step toward the validation and commercialisation of this key enabling technology. The team expects to launch Paihau-Robinson’s payload no earlier than the first quarter of 2024.

The company’s external platform on the ISS provides many critical systems including power, heat sinking, and telemetry, which Paihau-Robinson would have to otherwise design, build, and test themselves. This ISS payload hosting opportunity is being made available through the company’s Space Act Agreement with NASA.

According to an expert from the company, the equipment will enable the team to take step-by-step approaches to qualify their technology in the harsh space environment, while having the opportunity to review data and even receive their hardware back if desired.

To boost advancements in the aerospace tech sector, in September, the New Zealand government opened a consultation on the Aotearoa New Zealand Aerospace Strategy, which aims to set out a pathway to grow New Zealand’s emerging aerospace sector out to 2030.

Furthermore, the government commenced the Space Policy Review consultation on 5 September, which will run till 31 October. The Space Policy Review is an opportunity for New Zealanders to share their views on the values and objectives across a range of interests the government has in space, including economic, national security, regulatory, international, and environmental interests.

A summary of the feedback report will be produced from the consultation and will assist in creating a National Space Policy- a document outlining the country’s values and objectives on space to the world. It will also assist in developing future space strategies, policies, and regulatory changes.

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