Robinson’s space odyssey

Like many other people his age, Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Nick Long can remember as a child watching black and white television coverage of astronauts walking on the moon. Now, on the fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing, he is leading a branch of New Zealand’s nascent space industry.

Real image of a half moon, the left side of the moon is illuminated and the rest of the image is pitch black.
Image credit: Dr Bruce Charlier.

Nick is director of the Robinson Research Institute in the Faculty of Engineering, where he and his co-researchers are building on their internationally renowned strengths in high-temperature superconductor technology to develop propulsion and control systems for small satellites.

Space-sector analysts think small satellites are big business, says Nick. In 2016, they accounted for half of all launches and more than 8,500 small satellite missions are predicted over the next 10 years, with New Zealand playing an important role, thanks to Rocket Lab’s breakthrough in enabling low-cost launches.

As loads become more sophisticated and missions more complicated, small satellites will need improved thrusting capability for in-space manoeuvres.

“Current propulsion technology is suited for large spacecraft but has low efficiency at small scale, so small satellites can’t be repositioned once they are in orbit,” says Nick.

“Our aim, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Auckland and University of Canterbury, is to create the next generation of propulsion systems for small satellites. These would provide manoeuvring on demand, which would not only enable repositioning but also compensate against atmospheric drag and ensure controlled deorbiting.

“Mission lifetimes would be longer and safer—with end-of-life decommissioning—and could include low-orbit high-resolution observations of Earth as well as enabling deep space missions.”

‘Stimulating a design-led, high-value manufacturing region’ is one of Victoria University of Wellington’s areas of academic distinctiveness, and the systems the Robinson Research Institute and its collaborators are developing would contribute to this.

“The economic benefits for New Zealand would accrue to high-tech manufacturers that make propulsion and control systems for local and export markets, and would extend to the many new high-value jobs created,” says Nick.

“But the benefits would stretch even further when we take into account the value of the information gathered by a New Zealand-owned bespoke array of small satellites and provided to New Zealand users.

“Possible uses are many, from environmental and hazard monitoring to national security, telecommunications, and asset management. Users might include not only central and local government, but also commercial users such as farmers, forest owners, lines companies and telcos, as well as logistic, ‘internet of things’, and media companies.”

The Government has established a New Zealand Space Agency and prioritised developing the country’s space capability.

“We talk about ‘blue sky’ thinking, but with a space industry New Zealand can think beyond the sky,” says Nick. “And the potential is as limitless as space itself.”