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Managing risk and reward in New Zealand's emerging space sector

Opinion Piece

Kiwis can be confident we have the systems in place to ensure New Zealand is contributing to the safe and secure use of space.

Growing up in Gisborne, where as a boy I used to deliver this very newspaper, I couldn’t have imagined that in the not-so-distant future the East Coast would be home to an actual rocket launching facility.

Becoming a space-faring nation is a momentous achievement for New Zealand. The opportunities the space sector present for our economy and for future generations of scientists and technologists are immense.

A vibrant New Zealand space sector can make a very real contribution to broader national goals. As we transition our economy in the face of multiple global shifts, space represents precisely the kind of industry we should be developing.

We’ve moved quickly to seize this opportunity. It is understandable that New Zealanders will have questions about what the implications are of such a new sector. Who are we partnering with and what do they intend to do? How do we ensure that our national values and sovereignty are upheld and protected?

These are important questions and ones the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) New Zealand Space Agency, and the wider government, considered carefully throughout development of our regulatory regime.

We want and need a space industry that meets not just the expectations of Kiwis but also the global community, and we have put in place a regulatory framework that demands we do this. The Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017 meets an incredibly high standard in regulation.

Right now the most high-profile space activity we see in New Zealand is the launching of payloads (so far, small satellites). This is the first facility of its kind in the world.

Its customers range from the purely commercial to scientists and researchers (from high schools and universities) to government agencies. These payloads have a range of functions including gathering earth observation data to monitor weather, demonstrating new technology in space situational awareness, and improving radio communications in small spacecraft.

But before any of these “CubeSats” as they are known catch a lift into orbit they must meet the series of tests set out in our legislation. These tests are designed to ensure public safety, minimise the potential to create orbital debris, and ensure activity is consistent with New Zealand’s international obligations, national security, and wider national interest.

It’s a rigorous process involving assessment not just of the technology, but of its operators and their intent.

Agencies from across government are consulted on all applications to ensure they are understood and properly vetted. This process can include independent assessments made by specialist agencies to ensure that all the relevant expertise and competencies are applied when considering an application.

If we are not satisfied we understand the mission and purpose of any given payload, we will always request more information until we do understand and can reach an informed permitting decision.

Let me be very clear, no applicant would ever be approved to launch a payload that was not consistent with our international obligations, national security, and wider national interest. No one, from a commercial outfit to a government agency could ever gain permission to launch nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons from New Zealand.

Peter Crabtree is the general manager of Science, Innovation and International at MBIE, and head of the New Zealand Space Agency.

Peter Crabtree