What role does New Zealand play in the global space sector?

Space business tends to be concentrated in a few key markets. But technological improvements are leading to geographic diversification. Other countries are starting to play more important roles in space. One of these countries is New Zealand. It hosts Rocket Lab, one of the world’s most promising new launch service providers. We spoke to Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, who is one of the founders of the New Zealand-based social enterprise SpaceBase, to learn about New Zealand’s role in the global space sector. She also explains the mission and activities of SpaceBase.

What is SpaceBase and where did the idea for it come from?

SpaceBase is a not-for-profit company incorporated in New Zealand by three Edmund Hillary Fellows from Silicon Valley. Our long-term goal is to democratize access to space globally by catalyzing space entrepreneurial ecosystems in countries that do not typically play central roles in the global space sector, starting in New Zealand. With the exponential growth of disruptive technologies like AI, robotics, and digital manufacturing, space technology is getting smaller, cheaper, and more off-the-shelf. And because of this, the space industry is no longer just for big space agencies and aerospace companies. It is predicted that the global space industry will become a multitrillion dollar industry in twenty years. 

However, even with this great opportunity, over seventy percent of the global space economy is from activities in the nine wealthiest countries in the world. If we want to have a truly sustainable space economy (think of the Star Trek Universe) that will make us a multiplanetary species and create a non-dystopian future for all, we need to level the playing field around the world. SpaceBase is making sure this future happens through capacity building. We focus on educational programs and entrepreneurial initiatives such as running the NZ Space and Aerospace Challenges for the past two years. We ran the very first virtual aerospace incubator in the country. Lately, we are advising stakeholders in New Zealand from economic development agencies and from local and central governments on the benefits and opportunities of this growing space industry.

How would you summarize New Zealand’s role in the space economy?

New Zealand is now only the 11th country in the world capable of launching spacecraft and payloads to orbit. The New Zealand-founded company Rocket Lab has pioneered a whole new market of launching small payloads to space. While over 140 companies around the world are struggling to do what Rocket Lab has done, it has pioneered new technologies from 3D-printed engines and battery-powered rocket pumps to developing reusable rockets (third only to SpaceX and Blue Origin). Most recently, Rocket Lab has been awarded NASA funds to deliver spacecraft to the Moon. Across the globe, Rocket Lab is the shining unicorn that the space community is aspiring to emulate.

On a national scale, the New Zealand Space Agency was uniquely born out of a commercial need to regulate Rocket Lab rocket launches. The agency has been a pioneer in quick and agile space legislation and regulations. New Zealand’s Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act gives guidelines and regulations both for above air and below space. It is a first in the world and will likely be emulated worldwide.

Most of all, New Zealand’s location at the edge of the world is a huge advantage to launch operations. It has less air and sea traffic compared to other launch sites, and it lacks land masses east and south of the country. This makes New Zealand an ideal launching spot for polar orbiting satellites – the majority of the thousands of nanosats being launched today for Earth observation and communications. With this favorable scenario, the frequency of launches in New Zealand could increase greatly – perhaps even to several launches a day. This would be unrivaled globally and could be a huge economic opportunity for the country.

Today, there is a need for regional assessment of adjacent and direct industries – this will help improve understanding of what niche business activities are available to support the space industry in New Zealand. These likely include geographic information systems analysis, precision engineering and manufacturing, and the use of satellite data to create products or improve services that are already in use in the agriculture and dairy industries. These can all be great opportunities for New Zealand to contribute to the growing global space economy.

What advice do you have for individuals who would like to get involved in New Zealand’s space sector?

Exponential technologies are now making the space industry accessible to anyone who is interested and has the time and willingness to develop new skills or adapt their current skills to work on space-related initiatives, projects, and services. There is the specialized industry of manufacturing and launching rockets and spacecraft, which needs engineers, designers, and operators. Similar work extends throughout the supply chain of manufacturing hardware components to support the industry. But all this work is just the “upstream” part of the industry. An even larger part of the space industry is the “downstream” side – analyzing satellite data and developing satellite applications, for instance. Such downstream work is only just beginning to realize its full potential.

For students, strong tertiary institutions such as University of Canterbury’s Civil Engineering and Rocketry departments, as well as the new Auckland Space Institute at the University of Auckland have great degrees and courses to look into. For both students and the public, there are Meetup groups in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch that focus on growing local space communities. For the past two years we have run two NZ Space and Aerospace Challenges. Another competition is being planned later in the year.

Lastly, SpaceBase is dedicated to helping space enthusiasts and professionals in New Zealand to get involved in this growing industry. For a snapshot of the current New Zealand space ecosystem, check out our New Zealand Space Directory at spacebase.co. For up-to-date news on the space industry for New Zealand, join the Facebook group SpaceBaseNZand listen to the SpaceBase Podcast to learn from space entrepreneurs and scientists on how they got involved in the space industry in New Zealand and beyond. And lastly, SpaceBase provides training and consulting services that can help individuals and organizations assess, validate, and catalyze a space industry in their organization, city, or region.