Commercial space technology has advanced increasingly rapidly over the past two decades, drastically lowering the cost of entry into space, therein offering new opportunities. 

The Defence Technology Agency (DTA) is looking at an amalgam of commercial “NewSpace” technologies and in-house sensing and processing techniques as a viable space option for the future NZDF and our maritime domain.

Over the past decade we have been building our knowledge and expertise in space systems by engaging in research and development activities with NZDFs international partners. 

From 2013 to 2017 we tested the capability of the Canadian RadarSat-2 satellite to monitor our area of responsibility from the tropical waters north of New Zealand south to the sea ice of Antarctica. This provided us with experience and expertise in extracting shipping geolocation information from space-based synthetic aperture radar imagery. It also highlighted some of the practical challenges we face in operating in our part of the world.

Our next step in 2015 was to develop an experimental ground station that we could network with our international partners to increase the collective download data capacity. This makes the most of our unique location in the world – our ground station continually out-performs those of our partners. 

It is only connected to partners that have a formal research and development arrangement with the NZDF, and specific mission plans must be formally agreed to by the NZDF and must comply with New Zealand law. Locally, we partner with the University of Auckland in support of their space research programme.

The next step is to test on-orbit our sensing technology tailored to the unique characteristics of our maritime area. We are doing this in stages. We started by teaming up with our international partners to build our knowledge, expertise, and experience in space technologies.

We also set up a development “Space Lab” to enable us to design, build, test, and control a simple payload for calibrating the ground station network. The next steps will take us deeper into understanding the intricacies entailed in demonstrating a satellite and data exploitation system tailored to New Zealand’s unique requirements.

In learning more about space systems we also started exploring what is happening above our area of the world.  To do this we built a small optical observatory to accurately track and measure position and brightness of satellites as they pass over New Zealand. This enables us to study changes in orbit, orientation, and/or configuration that may be indicative of unusual behaviour.

Our research activities are enabling DTA to lead the way for the NZDF to gain greater understanding, knowledge, expertise, and experience in space technologies, space system engineering processes, and space interoperability with our international partners. The outcome from the DTA programme is helping to shape NZDF thoughts on the nature of our future space requirements and infrastructure.

Republished with permission from Air Force News, Issue 229, Pgs 30-31, October 2020

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