New Zealand’s space sector is expanding in Wellington
Robinson Research Institute, Victoria University of Wellington, is developing technology to revolutionise spacecraft
propulsion, making it more efficient to propel rockets while in space.
The Institute along with partners from University of Auckland and University of Canterbury and with funding from MBIE
are starting a five-year research and development program developing ion thrusters incorporating superconductor magnets
on space craft.
The Institute’s Director Associate Professor Nick Long says: “Applying our superconductors to ion thrusters to propel
satellites in orbit is just the beginning. In five year’s time, by the end of this program we will know how far we can
scale our thrusters. With this technology, who knows, a New Zealand Mars mission may be possible!”
Once they are in orbit, satellites need to change their velocity, whether it is to adjust their orbit, point themselves
in the right direction, or stay in the right place. With chemical propulsion systems, they burn fuel every time they
The new thrusters will be electric, powered by solar cells meaning the energy for propulsion is captured while in
flight, and by using superconductors, the thrusters will be more powerful for their weight.
This is “clever thruster technology based on using high field but light weight superconducting coils to accelerate ions
to high exhaust velocities. This Kiwi technology will enable a new industry in electric propulsion for New Zealand” says
Space has changed a lot since people first walked on the Moon, over 50 years ago. Private companies are now operating in
space, from SpaceX with its powerful Falcon Heavy rocket, to New Zealand’s own Rocket Lab with its nimble Electron
rocket, all potential beneficiaries of this technology.
The space sector is not new for Wellington; Robinson Research Institute members are already collaborating with the UNSW
Canberra Space group on thermal management of satellites incorporating superconductor systems.