Kiwi ingenuity key to space probe plan

Last updated 00:00 18/08/2007

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Designers of a venture to launch New Zealand rockets into space believe Kiwi ingenuity will ensure costs are kept under control.

A desire by Rocket Lab lead designer Peter Beck to devise New Zealand-made hardware for the project has been supported by $99,000 from a government agency.

The Foundation for Research, Science and Technology has confirmed the investment for a one-year contract, with the Auckland-based company paying for the remaining two-thirds of the project cost.

From September next year, Rocket Lab plans to send six rockets more than 150 kilometres above Earth for research into micro-gravity, solar physics and climate change. The cost was estimated at between $50,000 and $100,000, depending on the type of experiment and how high the rockets would go from their South Island launch pad.

The foundation's sector business manager, Tom McLeod, said the project had the potential to lure sections of the international space industry to New Zealand and broaden scientific horizons.

"With the growing concerns around climate change it is more necessary than ever to be able to conduct upper atmospheric measurements."

The company's commitment to New Zealand would also prove beneficial, he said.

"While there are competitors overseas, being able to operate locally, plus Rocket Lab's approach to design and cost will keep costs down and may result in some northern hemisphere projects coming to Rocket Lab."

The Royal Society, which provides advice to the Government on scientific issues, said it was in a position to publicise the rocket innovation but not able to help fund it.

Its astronomy committee chairman, geophysics professor Geoff Austin from Auckland University, described the project as a brave experiment but said the economics of rockets were pretty unproven.

He suggested one way for the company to ensure a "complete low-cost package" was to emulate researchers developing satellites at the University of Surrey, using off-the-shelf components.

Mr Beck said companies were already developing subsystems for the rocket components within a project budget, and without having to resort to standard components.

"If you develop your own hardware purposefully for that application you can keep a control on costs."

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- The Dominion Post

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