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Revealed: The inaugural New Zealand Space Challenge winner

Not many people can say they had the chance to work in Antarctica, and even fewer can say they’re working on innovative technologies to be used while exploring the frozen continent that can one day potentially be used to help us reach places in outer space like Mars. But John Ahearn – who spent two weeks in Antarctica as part of the University of Canterbury’s postgraduate Antarctic Studies programme – can.  

So, yeah: Ahearn knows a thing or two about the challenges of working in an extreme environment. And the judges of the first New Zealand Space Challenge seem to agree, as Ahearn and his Bay of Plenty-based company, GPS Control Systems, have won the inaugural grand prize.

John Ahearn in Antarctica.

Ahearn and GPS Control Systems won for their concept of a Global Navigation Satellite System to help heavy tracked vehicles detect and avoid perilous crevasses. “The big problem is crevasses and avoiding them,” he told Idealog earlier this week. “The crevasses down there can swallow a bus quite easily. It’s not the kind of place you can just get out and go home. A lot of the time you’re on your own.”

Ahearn, who represented Auckland, Northland and Bay of Plenty as the northern regional winner, said he was very excited to win the award, and that it was a daunting task to get up and present alongside such a talented group of finalists. “My year seven teacher once told me, ‘when you stop learning, you grow old.’ So never stop learning.”

Ahearn was up against designs from four other regional finalists, including a Pokémon GO-style augmented reality system, a suborbital rocket, an airborne ice penetrating radar, and a multi-spectral data analysis technique using artificial intelligence. As part of his win, he took home a $40,000 prize, as well as commercialisation support.

The 2018 New Zealand Space Challenge is made possible in partnership with SpaceBase and ChristchurchNZ, in collaboration with numerous national and regional partners including the NZ Space Agency, Rocket Lab, GridAKL and ATEED, Callaghan Innovation, Antarctica New Zealand, Christchurch Airport, COMNAP, Centre for Space Science Technology, ARA Institute of Canterbury, GQ Law, and Trimble.

Space Challenge co-founder Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom said whittling the five finalists down to just one winner was difficult for the panel of national and international judges. “All the concepts presented would have an impact on solving navigation issues in the Antarctic, and the opportunities presented by innovative use of advanced technologies were very exciting to the judges.”

ChristchurchNZ chief executive Joanna Norris congratulated all five finalists on the high calibre of their presentations. “The NZ Space Challenge demonstrates the strength of our emerging and exciting space industry that builds on our traditional manufacturing expertise and strong tech sector. This resonates strongly with the city’s unique and important role as one of only five global gateways to Antarctica.”

Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Peter Beggs said each of the finalists displayed creative solutions for safer navigation across Antarctica. “This event has been an amazing meeting of some of the brightest minds in our science and technology sectors,” he said.

Paat-Dahlstrom said the goal of the Space Challenge is to incentivise a space community in New Zealand, adding Aotearoa is a good place to prototype a new space industry and ecosystem because access to space is becoming easier. In fact, there are now more than 100 different space-related businesses and entities in the Land of the Long White Cloud. Also, the New Zealand Space Agency was founded in April 2016, to provide advice on space policy, regulation and business development.

All this has Paat-Dahlstrom excited for the future. “New Zealand’s isolation is a benefit,” she says. “It is a good place to launch spacecraft and there’s a science and entrepreneurial community.”

Ahearn and GPS Control Systems’ win was announced as part of ChristchurchNZ’s Techweek’18 event, Extreme Environments – from Antarctica to Space. The New Zealand Space Challenge was open to anyone residing in New Zealand, or New Zealand citizens living abroad.

Listen to this podcast with retired NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield on space, tech, New Zealand and more:

The 2018 New Zealand Space Challenge finalists:

– Christchurch, Canterbury, Marlborough and West Coast

JIX Limited and Orbica Limited, with their Pokémon GO-style augmented reality system that uses holographs and geospatial datasets to visualise the physical environment and navigate the terrain of Antarctica.

– Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and Waikato

Kiwi Orbitals, with their concept of a completely reusable, recoverable, aerospike powered suborbital rocket – designed to carry 4kg to 40km altitude.

– Dunedin, Southland and Otago

Deep Space Labs, who have developed new multi-spectral data analysis techniques, powered by machine learning and artificial intelligence that will allow for safe, quick, and inexpensive science to be conducted across Antarctica and throughout the solar system.

Wellington, Palmerston North, Wanganui and Taranaki

UTIG Cryo Group, who have based their solution on a proven autonomous airborne radar system, analysis techniques developed for the reconnaissance of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, and Antarctic-demonstrated drone technology.

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