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- Catalyst Fund
Catalyst: Strategic New Zealand–German Aerospace Centre Joint Research Programme
MBIE and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) have announced eight collaborative projects under the NZ-DLR Joint Research Programme.
About this programme
In October 2018, MBIE and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) signed a Letter of Intent at the International Astronautical Congress to enable joint research collaboration, focused on space systems, earth observation technologies and applications, transport technologies and energy technologies.
The New Zealand–DLR Joint Research Programme began in 2020 with a set of twelve feasibility studies to lay frameworks for longer-term strategic research in the agreed thematic areas of propulsion, space communications and Synthetic Aperture Radar technologies.
Building on the success of these studies, MBIE and DLR have now agreed to jointly support a set of eight research projects, with the New Zealand research teams receiving a total of NZ$8 million (GST excluded) between them. This funding will support the development of aerospace technology capability, establishing enduring research partnerships with Germany and jointly contributing to solving global economic, environmental, and social challenges.
|Lead organisation||Project title||Funding (NZ$ GST excluded)|
|University of Auckland||Implementing a DLR SOFA Unit in New Zealand for Free Space Optical Communications||$1.5 million|
|Dawn Aerospace||Study of N2O-based green propulsion systems for large satellite and deep space applications||$1.5 million|
|Kea Aerospace||An Eye in the Southern Sky||$800,000|
|University of Otago||Long term quantum memories for satellite quantum communication||$1.5 million|
|Moller Pollard||Project Takahe: Advanced Object Detectability in a Water Clutter Environment Using InSAR||$1.2 million|
|Victoria University of Wellington||Continuous magnetic heat shielding for atmospheric entry using superconductivity||$500,000|
|University of Auckland||Carbon-Fibre-Reinforced Polymers (CFRP) for Spacecraft and Launch Vehicles||$500,000|
|Victoria University of Wellington||Thrust measurement of small-scale electric propulsion systems||$500,000|
Public Statements of funded projects (MBIE-administered)
Implementing a DLR SOFA Unit in New Zealand for Free Space Optical Communications
The next evolution in global telecommunications will be based on optical communications between Earth and space. Alongside an increase in transmission speed, optical communications will lessen the dependence on the increasingly crowded and noisy radio frequency spectrum for global communications.
We will be working with partners at Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt institutes in Oberpfaffenhofen and Deutsches Raumflugbetrieb und Astronautentraining (GSOC). Our DLR team members have created an apparatus to simplify the adaptation of a conventional optical telescope into an optical communication ground station. In this project we will install this apparatus on the 61 cm Boller & Chivens telescope at the University of Canterbury’s Mount John Observatory, and conduct free space optical communication experiments. We will develop this capacity with a view to developing a NZ node to the AOGSN, an international network of optical ground stations able to service the needs of mission designers and operators to enable and accelerate the adoption of optical communication between space and Earth.
Study of N2O-based green propulsion systems for large satellite and deep space applications
Satellites can manoeuvre in space when equipped with in-space propulsion systems. These systems are equipped with thrusters (small rocket motors). They allow satellites to perform corrective manoeuvres if a satellite has been delivered to an incorrect orbit, they can orientate a satellite, can be used for collision avoidance, and can carry a satellite further afield, for example, to a higher orbit or on a mission to the moon or another planet.
The deadly-toxic fuel hydrazine has traditionally powered In-space chemical propulsion systems. N2O-based systems have been identified globally as one of the most viable alternatives to replace this harmful propellant. They operate reliably but are limited to short-duration pulses due to high combustion temperatures (approx. 3000 K) - a common restriction for all N2O-based propulsion systems.
Dawn Aerospace and DLR have been independently working on such technology in both the commercial and institutional markets. With 15 thrusters launched in the past 12 months and another 100+ thrusters currently in production for commercial clients, all set to launch over the coming 18 months, Dawn's nitrous-based propulsion is on track to become the most common chemical propulsion on-orbit, after hydrazine.
DLR is home to the world’s most premier propulsion research institutes. The research they produce is used widely across orbital propulsion, satellite propulsion, reusable spacecraft, upper states and kick stages, lander propulsion, and main rocket stages. They are at the forefront of deep scientific research of green propellants and specifically N2O-based technologies.
DLR and Dawn have identified a high-value joint research roadmap, aiming to achieve longer burn durations and the total lifetime of N2O-based propulsion technology. The result aims to enable N2O-based thrusters to operate for extended periods, widening the propellant's applicability for larger spacecraft, deep-space missions, and broad industry adoption.
An Eye in the Southern Sky
Today Earth is monitored by a large number of satellite systems and constellations. These satellites have provided huge leaps forward in our understanding of the natural world and how to govern within it. However, earth observation satellites lack the flexibility to be exactly where you want them, when you want them to be there. Furthermore, we have reached limitations in the physics of optical systems, which prevent the improvement of camera systems within realistic payloads for satellite operations.
This work focuses on the integration of remote sensing systems onto an unmanned high-altitude aircraft via close collaboration with the German Aerospace Center (DLR). The lightweight Kea Atmos has a 30+ m wingspan and a 5 kg payload capability. The aircraft is solar-powered and its planned endurance per flight is up to 3 months. Its operational altitude is around 20 km (65,000 ft). This platform offers a zero-carbon data capture capability. The successful integration of state-of-the-art radar and optical sensors for deployment in the stratosphere will provide an unprecedented ability to advance scientific understanding of the natural world, while providing an operational asset to key stakeholders advancing New Zealand’s interests and meeting its responsibilities. Data applications include environmental monitoring, precision agriculture, forestry, maritime surveillance, smart cities and disaster management.
Given its isolation and quiet airspace, the Southern Ocean and Antarctic region is a perfect trial area for the development of this technology. The need for data-guided action and policy is critical for successful navigation of the challenges presented to Aotearoa New Zealand given its key role in managing the Aotearoa-Antarctic relationship. High-altitude platform technology provides an incredible opportunity to fill the existing gaps in our knowledge and ability to rise and meet these challenges.
Long term quantum memories for satellite quantum communication
The project's aim is to achieve a landmark scientific milestone, the long-term storage and retrieval of the quantum state of single photons – the particles that make up light. The storage will be in quantum memories which are special crystals that absorb photons but can be told to release them again on demand.
These quantum memories will be combined with light sources that generate so-called entangled photon pairs. If one photon from the pair is measured, this tells you about the properties of the other photon even if it has travelled an extremely long distance away. This entanglement is what Einstein famously called “spooky action at a distance.”
Using these two building blocks we aim to store one photon of the entangled pair. The stored photon is then entangled with the other photon, which can be sent somewhere else, enabling robust quantum communication.
The project is a collaboration between world class New Zealand and German researchers and builds on the New Zealand team’s and experience in the development of quantum memories and the German researchers’ expertise in the development of single photon sources.
Project Takahe: Advanced Object Detectability in a Water Clutter Environment Using InSAR
Maritime domain awareness (MDA) has relied on spaceborne remote sensing for many decades. In particular, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) is capable of high resolution mapping which can be valuable for characterising dynamic regions and detection of features of interest, including the presence of vessels or wakes, pollutant spills, coastal dynamics, search and rescue, identification of marine-debris, identification and classification of sea-ice, and fresh-water outflow. However, detection, characterization, and ideally classification and tracking of objects or features in the complex maritime environment can be extremely challenging and limited by fundamental conflicts among resolution, coverage, and measurement sensitivity.
To address key New Zealand interests in MDA, we propose a multi-platform ocean observational strategy. Our approach offers significant improvements in object detectability, coverage area, and temporal sampling when compared to techniques that utilise existing or planned assets. We propose the design, development, and ultimate operation of a Ka-band, dual-platform interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) constellation and develop a new and powerful interferometric approach for target detection. To overcome the temporal sampling limitations of low-Earth orbit satellites, we propose to augment the orbital observatories with InSAR and/or optical system(s) deployed on high altitude platforms. These new, carbon neutral platforms offer long endurance remote sensing opportunities from the stratosphere and can allow for persistent monitoring of key areas identified by spaceborne assets.
We have named this overall programme Takahē, a Tandem Ka-band & High altitude platform Explorer for ocean and ice monitoring. Takahē’s societally important measurement goals could help answer key questions about climate change, resource sustainability, Antarctic and maritime resiliency, and provide regional coastal monitoring.
Understanding the linkages and impacts of climate change are topics of extensive global research. Takahē could provide critical and unique information for improving our understanding through its cryospheric, oceanic and coastal measurements. Identity, connection to genealogy and social structure in the Pacific is linked to the land and the ocean and our role as kaitiaki can only be strengthened with greater knowledge. We envision that information and capacity gained from Takahē would enhance our collective ability to provide governance that is balanced and inclusive of the principles of kaitiakitanga.
Continuous magnetic heat shielding for atmospheric entry using superconductivity
Spacecraft undergoing atmospheric entry must slow down as they enter the atmosphere without sustaining damage. The re-entry process creates large amounts of heat from which the spacecraft must be shielded. A proposed alternative thermal protection method to existing mechanical heat shields is to employ a strong magnetic field which can push away the partially ionized plasma front impacting the spacecraft. In comparison with existing heat shielding methods, an electromagnetic shield (and associated electrodynamic braking) using a magnetic field has several potential advantages including adjusting the drag, reusability and lighter weight.
Until recently, magnetic heat shields have lacked suitable enabling technologies; however, HTS electromagnets are a potential break-through in this area. The Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technologies at the DLR are already at the forefront of research into this subject, having carried out some of the most recent experiments in their hypersonic wind tunnel using fast pulsed magnetic fields.
We will design and implement a follow-on to DLR’s prior wind tunnel-based experiments, this time using a steady state magnetic field, enabled by an HTS electromagnet. This magnet will be designed and supplied by Robinson Research Institute. We will conduct ground-based measurements to validate and tune new numerical models of magnetic field-gas interactions with the aim of filling the current knowledge gap in quantifying and understanding the shielding mechanism.
In comparison with existing heat shielding methods, electrodynamic braking using a magnetic field has several potential advantages including drag modulation, re-usability and mass reduction. Strong magnetic fields can be generated by solenoid coils, and their strength adjusted by changing the electrical current. This provides a means of trajectory adjustment via drag modulation that is not available using conventional passive shielding. The system should also be entirely reusable as the magnetic coil itself is not subject to high thermal loading. Lastly, the system has the potential to be much lighter than the ablative shields currently used for interplanetary missions.
This program of research aims to improve the technology to a level where commercialization can be considered via partners in either Germany or New Zealand.
Carbon-Fibre-Reinforced Polymers (CFRP) for Spacecraft and Launch Vehicles
Aotearoa New Zealand is a world-leader in the manufacture of high-performance fibre-reinforced polymer composites, with users ranging from America’s Cup racing yachts to the Electron rocket launched by Rocket Lab. Composites have advantages over metals, in terms of strength, light weight, corrosion resistance, design flexibility and durability. These properties make them attractive for space applications where launch weight is a primary concern. However, what happens to composite parts in the space environment and when they eventually re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere is not well understood.
The University of Auckland (UoA), including the Centre for Advanced Composite Materials (CACM), will work with partners at the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR) in Germany to test a range of composite parts in simulated orbital environments and re-entry plasmas. UoA has equipment for testing parts in simulated launch conditions as well as the vacuum of orbit. Our partner (the Supersonic and Hypersonic Technologies Department) at the DLR in Köln has unique facilities that can replicate the temperatures and heat fluxes experienced by vehicles returning to Earth, as well as deep experience in testing aerospace materials. This group has been involved in most of the European projects related to re-entry technologies and demise testing on metallic and composite components of space debris fragments.
The results of this work will open new markets for high-value composite structures fabricated in New Zealand, and provide the information required for possible reuse, or responsible disposal of space hardware. Reducing the harms of space debris is part of our tiakitanga of the Earth and space environment.
Thrust measurement of small-scale electric propulsion systems
Electric propulsion systems are increasingly used to manoeuvre satellites in space due to their superior 'fuel efficiency' over traditional chemical rockets. The superior fuel efficiency also enables a wider range of potential future deep-space missions. A key metric characterizing the performance of an electric propulsor is the amount of thrust it generates, as this is what accelerates the satellite. Recently, the Robinson Research Institute has begun a programme of research and development of a electric propulsion system augmented with a superconducting magnet. This powerful, light-weight magnet is predicted to provide a significant enhancement in the operational performance of the system.
Before such novel technology can be adopted and deployed, it must first be tested on the ground. The testing and development of the electric propulsion systems relies on the availability of a reliable device for characterising the resulting thrust force on the ground in an environment that simulates space. Such a device is referred to as a thrust stand. Thrust stands are sophisticated devices since they must measure small thrust-to-weight ratios in an environment that simulates space.
This programme sees the Robinson Research Institute and DLR working together on the development of electric propulsion systems for spacecraft. Specifically, DLR and Robinson will together develop the capability to measure the thrust generated by electric propulsion systems that are equipped with superconducting magnets. This capability will be world-wide unique. It will accelerate the development and adoption of new electric propulsion technology augmented with superconducting magnet systems.
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