International research projects

In October 2018, MBIE and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) signed a Letter of Intent at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) to enable joint research collaboration, focused on space systems, earth observation technologies and applications, transport technologies and energy technologies.

MBIE and DLR have now agreed to jointly support a set of 8 research projects, with the New Zealand research teams receiving a total of NZ$8 million (GST excluded) over 3 years.

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.

ReSTORe Lab Ltd

Project —Takahe: Advanced Object Detectability in a Water Clutter Environment Using InSAR

Led by Dr Delwyn Moller, CEO ReSTORe Lab Ltd, Wanaka, New Zealand

We are developing new innovations in imaging radar technology and measurement techniques for ocean monitoring. While synthetic aperture radar (SAR) has been used for decades in this area, fundamental limitations remain with respect to resolution, coverage, and measurement sensitivity, especially in high ocean sea-states. In consultation with our colleagues at DLR our mission, called Takahe, has the potential to improve SAR’s ability to detect and track features in the ocean over a wide range of conditions e.g., vessels, wakes, pollutant spills, coastal dynamics, search and rescue, marine debris, sea ice, and fresh-water outflow.

Image shows the glacier in Greenland with colours ranging from red to blue.

SAR imagery showing bergy-bit outflow from a marine terminating glacier in Greenland. Colour indicates height and clearly allows discrimination of ice from navigable water. Data was collected using the NASA JPL GLISTIN system for the Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) mission and is analogous to the measurement capabilities targeted by Mission Takahe.

NASA JPL GLISTIN system(external link) – NASA

Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) mission(external link) – NASA

What were the main challenges of collaborating with another country and how did you overcome them?

Cultural differences and differing priorities always introduce challenges, but along with that often comes enrichment. In our case we are building off of long-term relationships with contemporaries, and this project is enabling us to expand that network.

Due to Covid travel restrictions this partnership was established solely online without meeting in face-to-face situations, what were some of the challenges and opportunities you came across?

While it is ideal to be able to meet and work together in person, it was fortunate in this instance that many of the key individuals are known to us from prior projects, conferences, and workshops. We are encouraged that our next stage of funding will include two-way personnel exchanges that can expand our relationships beyond our previous experience.

How will this partnership help you expand the breadth of your research?

The DLR is a large national aerospace agency with many institutes and diverse expertise across the aerospace sector with state-of-the-art technology and mission developments.  They have capabilities across all aspects of operations, science and policy impact, payload and mission design that is an invaluable resource for an ambitious project like Takahe.

These projects tackle important societal challenges; how will this collaboration give you an advantage in this area?

Projects like these must be compelling from both societal and science perspectives in order to be successful. International collaborations can add new perspectives that enrich and deepen the benefits this mission brings to science and society.

International collaborative research projects often provide findings beyond what one team could achieve alone. In what areas do you hope to gain more skills and a better perspective of the topic you are researching?

International, but also interdisciplinary collaborative research projects enable greater resources in terms of skills and perspective.  In this instance expertise can be garnered through the DLR’s broad experience and skill sets ranging from orbit design to maritime processes to data-analytics and much more.

What unique benefits do you see as a result of working with DLR researchers and scientists as opposed to those from other countries?

Our DLR partners are at the forefront of a number of key areas related to this mission. They also have extensive industry networks in terms of operations and applications — so we can capitalise on this to ensure our work is relevant and impactful.

What outcomes do you hope to achieve through this collaboration?

We hope this will be an exciting and ambitious mission that will produce considerable societal benefits for both nations.

Dawn Aerospace

Project — researching nitrous (N2O)-based satellite propulsion technology for sustainable space transportation

Led by Stefan Powell, CEO and CTO of Dawn Aerospace.

Our first task in making transportation in space simpler and more sustainable is to replace the toxic propellant hydrazine (the dominant chemical used for in-space transportation) with something less toxic, and more easily accessible for the many new companies wanting to build satellites.

Stefan Powell

Portrait photo of Stefan Powell, Co-Founder and CTO at Dawn Aerospace, wearing a black t-shirt with the text DAWN Mk-II AURORA

What does this scientific cooperation represent for Dawn’s long-term mission and some of the important societal challenges you’re looking to tackle?

We have a vision of sustainable and scalable space transportation at every step, from getting things to space, moving them around, and bring them back to Earth. Currently, the dominant chemical used for in-space transportation is a toxic propellant called hydrazine. Our first task in making transportation in space simpler is to replace this fuel with something less toxic, and more easily accessible for the many new companies wanting to build satellites. Fuelling a satellite with hydrazine comes with a $500,000 price tag, which is more than some satellites’ total build and launch cost. It’s an expensive, prohibitive, and highly carcinogenic product that has no place in the NewSpace industry.

Dawn is already beating hydrazine systems on price, lead time, safety, and accessibility with our green propulsion technology, but to fully replace hydrazine, we have some work to do on performance. Our thrusters are fast on track to being the ‘green’ standard for the small satellite industry, but we know many other applications would benefit from these propellants, including larger satellites, and deep-space and lunar missions. The work we are doing with DLR is to progress the fundamental understanding of these propellants, so we can push thruster limits, improve performance, and then replace hydrazine once and for all.

What outcomes do you hope to achieve through this collaboration?

The concept of an N2O-based bi-propellant propulsion systems is not new. They’ve been around for a long time and extensively tested on the ground. The problem is that these engines are hard to get right, and the thermal kinetics are a real pain. Some of the nitty gritty details, like how N2O acts as a coolant, are not well understood. Exotic materials and film cooling are typically used to solve this problem, but we additively manufacture our thrusters as a single piece using Inconel alloy 718. We want to keep doing this because the low cost, scalability, and speed of production are major advantages. What is new, is that we flew the thrusters in space, which had never been done before, thus proving that our method of design, manufacture, and verification — works. Now it’s time to optimize the engine to be the best it can be. But to build the best nitrous engines in the world, there are knowledgeable gaps to fill, and a lot of the research we need does not yet exist. We aim to fill that gap through this scientific cooperation with DLR. We’ll also publish a series of scientific whitepapers with them, which is very cool.

International collaborative research projects often provide findings beyond what one team could achieve alone. In what areas do you hope to gain more skills and a better perspective of the topic you are researching?

DLR are experts at fundamental research. They have the authoritative expertise in combustion research, and this collaboration gives us a direct line to the world’s best researchers and minds in the business. At Dawn, we’ve proven ourselves in applying knowledge to build useful products that have significant commercial value. Research benefits from commercial feedback to assess what knowledge is valuable, and new products need research to make large changes from the status quo, else only incremental changes are possible. In combination, we can find solutions to extremely difficult problems that we couldn’t do alone, then turn that knowledge into world-changing products.

How will this collaboration change how you operate in the future?

We have customers asking us to support advanced deep-space missions like GTO > GEO transfers, Lunar, Mars, and asteroid insertions. These high-performance missions benefit substantially from every last percent of performance, so naturally, there is a desire to squeeze more out of them. This collaboration will help make these missions a reality and thus allow green propulsion to be more universally applied in space.

Talk to us about the match between applied academia and industry and what this means for both.

We’ve come together to create positive results for both entities. It’s a great story of bridging industry and applied academic pursuits. As the industrial project participant, we get access to knowledge and experience we usually wouldn’t have access to. For DLR as the applied academia project participant, they receive a timely industry problem, and are able to apply their research to a product with a high technology readiness level and relevance in the market. DLR has several PhD students involved in the various work packages we’re doing together, and these students get to include high-pedigree research in their theses.

With 33 thrusters in orbit, propelling eight satellites, we’ve become the world leader in commercialising N2O-based propulsion systems. We’re still regularly launching hardware to space. Since the project began, we’ve sent up 18 B20 thrusters, and another 12 are scheduled for this year. We’re delivering systems for orbital transfer vehicles (OTVs), Earth observation, internet, and IoT constellations. DLR’s research outcomes will be flying on these spacecraft.

Six months in, how are things going?

Extremely well, and I’d like to highlight how great it’s been working with DLR. They have a fantastic attitude, a willingness to share their wealth of knowledge, and a cordial nature we highly respect. Four work packages are on the table, and we’re well into the first two. Thorough test plans are solidified, we’ve scaled up the team, hardware is being produced, CFD models are up and running, and we’ve already experimentally demonstrated that the novel cooling techniques we want to employ work on the test bench. We’re on the right path, and the collaboration is running moving at pace that gives us great pride as a company.

What’s next after this project?

This project has been an amazing kick-start for our relationship, but it’s by no means reached its true extent. We’ve already started several other projects with DLR that are actively ongoing. For example, colleagues at the DLR Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology recently conducted a plume analysis of our B20 thruster. The findings were presented at this year’s Space Propulsion 2022 conference in Portugal and were published in the paper, ‘Composition Measurements In a Freely Expanding Green Propellant Thruster Plume’. We are also working with the DLR Mechanics and Thermal Systems Institute for environmental shock qualification on some of the propulsion systems we’re building. DLR has a wealth of knowledge in certain areas of value for our spaceplane project too, so I’m sure we’ll do something there in the future.

University of Auckland Research Team

Project — using laser light technology to transmit data to Earth

Led by Dr Nicholas Rattenbury, from the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Science. 

“We are working on developing optical communications between space satellites and Earth. Using optical wavelengths for communication offers substantial benefits in terms of bandwidth and security. This research will benefit from New Zealand's expertise in photonics, quantum mechanics, optical telescope observatory design and operations, and will develop our research relationships with strategic international partners like the DLR.”

Dr Nicholas Rattenbury

DLR's Institute for Communication and Navigation in Oberpfaffenhofen. Left to right: Jan Krecke (PhD candidate, UoA), Andrew Austin (UoA), Olga Trivailo (DLR) Christian Fuchs (DLR-IKN) and Nicholas Rattenbury (UoA) in the foreground. Photo by John Cater (UoA).

Dome of the Optical Ground Station of DLR's Institute for Communication and Navigation in Oberpfaffenhofen. Left to right: Jan Krecke (PhD candidate, UoA), Andrew Austin (UoA), Olga Trivailo (DLR) Christian Fuchs (DLR-IKN) and Nicholas Rattenbury (UoA) in the foreground. Photo by John Cater (UoA).

International collaborative research projects often provide findings beyond what one team could achieve alone. In what areas do you hope to gain more skills and a better perspective of the topic you are researching?

We will be gaining new insights into free-space optical communications, laser communication instrumentation, satellite tracking, and ground station operations.

What unique benefits do you see as a result of working with DLR researchers and scientists as opposed to those from other countries?

The DLR has a long history of scientific research and innovation in space science and engineering, and a proven track record of engaging with their research partners. They have been able to influence and promote the DLR-NZ collaboration with their policy makers and gain support within their team to foster this new relationship.

How will this partnership help you expand the breadth of your research?

My research portfolio is expanding into a thoroughly new area. My expertise in telescope operation, control and use for astronomical research, coupled with broader research into small satellite mission design for science projects, has widened my field of operations into space science and engineering; a significant rescoping of my career path.

Due to Covid travel restrictions this partnership was established solely online without meeting in face-to-face situations, what were some of the challenges and opportunities you came across?

We had met in person and discussed research opportunities with DLR before the DLR-NZ Catalyst project was established.  This personal interaction made the subsequent discussions, planning and interactions over remote video teleconferencing so much easier. The time difference between NZ and Germany means that our video conferences are usually in the early evening, New Zealand time, which is not an issue. We have enjoyed a great relationship via Zoom. Having meetings online means I can easily extend invitations to additional associated researchers – and in turn, those additional researchers are more likely to join in on a Zoom call rather than attending an in-person meeting.

These projects tackle important societal challenges; how will this collaboration give you an advantage in this area?

Our DLR partners are world-leaders in the field of research – and know how to apply scientific breakthroughs to the real world. They know how to develop standards suited to the technology, its use and development; and can ensure that those standards meet the needs of public, commercial, industrial, political and research stakeholders.

What outcomes do you hope to achieve through this collaboration?

I hope that this collaboration will be the start of an enduring relationship where big things happen. I see it as just the beginning – allowing the work to continue and grow, so that more researchers have the opportunity to work on advanced free-space optical communications and ground station operations. I also hope that this relationship will be an example of how NZ-DLR research links can be strengthened in general.

Last updated: 17 August 2022