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Wanted: Innovative ideas for exploring the universe for the New Zealand Space Challenge

The first New Zealand Space Challenge is underway. The mission: to come up with innovative new technologies that can help humanity explore the stars.

Space. The final frontier. These are the…

Yeah, yeah, sure. You’ve heard it before. It’s more cliché than those fantasy films where a wizened old wizard or brooding warrior weary of the world mentors the earnest – yet naïve – hero.

But this is a story about space. Or, rather, a cool new initiative right here in Aotearoa to increase humanity’s understanding of it – by helping the Land of the Long White Cloud’s very own New Zealand Space Agency.

Some of the best brains working in space-related sectors – including folks working for companies or start-ups, employed at or studying in universities, and more – are competing in the very first New Zealand Space Challenge. Six of the entrants – from Wellington to Taranaki and Manawatū – will be pitching their ideas at a regional final at the Dowse Art Museum on Tuesday 15 May as part of Hutt STEMM (science, technology, engineering and manufacturing) Festival. The overall winner will be announced on May 24 at the Extreme Environments: From Antarctica to Space conference in Christchurch.

Those ideas can include virtual and augmented reality, robotics, artificial intelligence, and really anything to help humans better explore space in the future. And there’s big money up for grabs too – not to mention the chance for commercialisation.

This first challenge, with a $40,000 prize, ties space exploration to seeking innovative technological solutions to navigation problems in Antarctica as a precursor for future space exploration (since Antarctica is, after all, among the harshest environments on the planet). There’s also commercialisation support for the most innovative solutions to enable safer, more efficient navigation across Antarctic ice using satellite data and sensors operating in the extreme environments. “The goal of the challenge is to incentivise a space community all around New Zealand,” says Space Challenge co-founder Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom.

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

Paat-Dahlstrom says that New Zealand is a good place to prototype a new space industry and ecosystem, as access to space is becoming increasingly democratised. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, she points to Rocket Lab as a company that’s doing innovative things and an example other enterprises and entrepreneurs could follow.

Rocket Lab is also far from alone when it comes to New Zealand companies involved in the space industry, as there are now more than 100 different space-related businesses and entities in Aotearoa.

Partially in response to the growth of the industry, the New Zealand Space Agency was founded in April 2016 to provide advice on space policy, regulation and business development. Already, it has signed a bilateral agreement with the US for space launchers using US technology.

Paat-Dahlstrom says that’s hopefully just the beginning. “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.”

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