T icon

New Zealand's Space Pioneers on Target for Greatness

Representatives of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) have been visiting some of New Zealand's best photonic researchers within the Centre.

New Zealand's Space Pioneers on Target for Greatness
published on:


reading time:
2 minutes
Anna Verboeket (Communications Manager)

New Zealand’s Space Pioneers on Target for Greatness

Worried about things outside of your control? The answer to our costly satellites, digital security challenges and unforeseen weather patterns could soon be found in space. New Zealand and German researchers are collaborating to explore the use of laser technology to transmit information. They’ve also teamed up to build the next generation in telecommunications networks and measure the ozone layer for improved weather forecasting.

Representatives of the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) have been visiting some of New Zealand’s best photonic researchers at Te Whai Ao — Dodd-Walls Centre for a status check on these joint projects. The DLR is the world’s second largest space agency and New Zealand has a longstanding research partnership with it. These three projects are funded by Catalyst and Smart Ideas grants until later this year and are eager to source more support to progress their findings.

A stellar trip

Visit host, Principal Policy Advisor at the New Zealand Space Agency, Tim Searle says it’s been a hugely successful trip.

“We got good feedback on how well our research has been going and how quickly New Zealand has been able to turn research projects into commercial ideas and then look around for the next concept,“  he says.

The visitors also met industry executives at Dawn Aerospace and KEA Aerospace, both doing large scale space research. Searle says New Zealand is unique in its technology transfer between academic and other sectors. He says the visit also gave researchers on both sides the chance to discuss proposals for funding under Horizon Europe. It’s a massive European Union research and innovation programme, with around $90 billion funding (NZD) available from 2021-2027.        

Faster, lighter, cheaper communications

Quantum communications networks offer faster, lightweight, more secure and lower cost solutions than networks run over radio frequencies using satellites.

At Te Whai Ao — Dodd-Walls Centre, University of Auckland Associate Professor Nick Rattenbury is researching the use of free-space optical communications (or laser light technology) to transmit information from spacecraft down to Earth. His challenge is to manage the effects of the atmosphere which plays havoc with laser light. The Germans are experts in the development of ground stations, and the Dodd-Walls team knows how to capture light in the perfect state.

"The global community is working out how to deal with atmospheric distortions affecting the light on the path from the Earth's surface to space. Collecting the light from space is difficult, but relatively easy compared to sending it the other way and being received successfully," says Rattenbury.  

Detecting eavesdroppers

The DLR also has specialist expertise in the creation of single photon sources. The Kiwis led by University of Otago Associate Professor Dr Jevon Longdell build “quantum memories”, which is where network speed and security come into play. They’re used to make repeaters which send laser signals through space in a way that reduces their susceptibility to atmospheric interference. Without quantum repeaters the transmission quality would be greatly depleted over such vast distances.  

“You can make quantum repeaters that enable you to do a clever trick called entanglement swapping, but those require quantum memories,” says Longdell.

In broad terms, entanglement is a phenomenon where two photons behave as one unit, even when they’re physically separated. This means you can’t measure something about one photon without affecting the other photon in the pair, which is what makes it secure.  

“We hope to push this to a level where it’s worthwhile to start designing satellites and missions around our quantum memory technology,” Longdell says.

Predicting bad weather

The third project out of Dodd-Walls is the creation of a photonic sensor to detect molecular radiation, like ozone. University of Otago Associate Professor Harald Schwefel says that 700 kilometres up in the atmosphere, satellites can detect the glow from these wiggling molecules. He says the ozone layer affects our wind systems and a better understanding of it could greatly improve weather forecasting.

Dr Mallika Suresh, who began the experimental work on the project as part of Schwefel’s team will soon lead the next stage as the future Agnes Blackie Fellow of the Dodd-Walls Centre.

“There’s a satellite in the US that's going to come to the end of its life in a couple of years which is going to cost billions to replace. We’ve demonstrated alternative sensing technology that works in the lab, now we want to do it for real,” she says.

And for those worried they’ll be hit by the next Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai eruption and tsunami, Schwefel’s technology can also detect the presence of ash in space.

read more