New Zealand's space programme is taking off, but are there risks?

New Zealand's role in outer space is gaining momentum, bringing increased opportunities - but with that comes risks, including concerns the new technologies could be weaponised.

Documents obtained by Newshub show 20 applications for space or high-altitude activities have been made to the New Zealand Space Agency since 2017.

But the spike in space activity raises concerns about the technology being abused and used for nefarious purposes.

New Zealand Space Agency head Peter Crabtree told Newshub it depends who's using the technology and for what.

"I think the thing about space - because it's operating so much at the cutting edge of technology - is that many of the technologies that are being developed for space activities are technologies that will have wider application and that wider application could be for good or could be for not-so-good ends."

The New Zealand Space Agency is in ongoing discussions with international partners about monitoring what the space technology could be used for.

"I don't think we'd see it as being weaponised," said Dr Crabtree. "I think we have a broader interest in making New Zealand technologies well protected if they have those types of characteristics. The challenge here is it's very hard to know what uses cutting edge technologies may be put to."

Economic Development Minister David Parker gives the final signoff for each application. Dr Crabtree said his agency requires full disclosure of information for people who are applying to do things out of New Zealand.

"We're really interested in who are they and what are they intending to do. So at this point in time, we've got a high degree of confidence that we're able to essentially get the information we need and make sound decisions."

Defence Minister Ron Mark told Newshub the Defence Force has no concerns about the possible militarisation of the technologies New Zealand is involved in.

"The Defence Force has no interest in doing anything other than improving communications, command, control and navigation. Space-based systems will enable us to get the very best out of the four P-8s (Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft), the two frigates and the two OPVs (offshore patrol vessels) we have."

Jim Hefkey is the director of the University of Auckland's Programme for Space Systems, and says keeping New Zealand's growing space industry safe is very real.

"We're developing a satellite at the University of Auckland. Everything that goes into that satellite has to be recorded and has to be vetted by New Zealand's security agencies as well as the Government to get a permit to fly.

"I don't think it's being treated lightly, it's being treated very seriously, sometimes I think it's being treated too seriously.

"There's nothing in the world that can't be dual-use, so it comes down to the people behind it. Are people at heart evil or are they good? It's the age-old question."

Earlier this year the Pentagon raised concerns about China and Russia re-developing military capabilities in space. The US Defense Intelligence Agency says it ranges from laser weapons to ground-based anti-satellite missiles.

What happens in New Zealand's outer space?

Out of the 20 applications for space-based activity 17, were payload permit applications (cargo, equipment, satellite), one launch licence application, one facility license application and one high-altitude vehicle licence application.

The Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act (OSHAA) commenced on 21 December 2017. It establishes a regulatory regime to govern space launches from New Zealand and by New Zealand nationals operating overseas. It also provides a legal framework for high-altitude activities that originate from New Zealand.

space applications
Photo credit: Newshub.

Dr Crabtree says applications are made for commercial use while some are made by government agencies. He revealed most cases are from the United States while none are from China.

"The satellites launched out of New Zealand at this point in time are small satellites. You've seen this movement towards miniaturisation of things across most IT.

"What these small satellites might be able to do in the future is sort of an open book, but what we're seeing at the moment are satellites that are there to do earth observation.

Mark says space is essential to the everyday functioning of the Defence Force.

"It presents opportunities, to improve communications, improve command, improve control and deliver accurate navigation. I think every modern military in the world is heavily reliant on space-based systems.

"We lease capability from one of our Five Eyes partners to give global positioning systems, which is critical for our aircraft, for our ships, and increasingly in the network-enabled army for individual personnel on the ground.

"That gives tighter control for the commanders, they know where their troops are. Improving communications is also essential, those areas are where we're going to have to explore in the future."

Ron Mark.
Ron Mark. Photo credit: Newshub.

Earlier this year, the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service and Government Communications Security Bureau have raised concerns with politicians about cyber warfare and foreign interference.

Dr Crabtree says the Space Agency is interested in cyber-security and making sure New Zealand's well protected. He's unaware of any concerns in the area.

Mark says cyber-security is an issue for Defence.

"Digital communication is now space-based [and] cyber has been identified as representing a very serious threat - not just to the security of our Defence Forces and personnel who are deployed, but also our economic infrastructure.

"Our entire government systems, our economic, business and commercial sector rely on a second-by-second basis. Cyber is a massive threat and it's a cross-agency issue, Defence is part of that."

What does the future hold?

There is a range of space activity going on in New Zealand. Rocket Lab, led by Peter Beck, has established the world's first private orbital launch range located on the Mahia Peninsula.

Peter Beck.
Peter Beck. Photo credit: Rocket Lab

Based in Alexandra, the Xerra Earth Observation Institute wants to support the development of New Zealand's space ecosystem and Earth Observation market.

NASA annually launches a super-pressure balloon programme in Wanaka. It's launched three balloons in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Prior to the OSHAA, Rocket Lab's activities were managed under an agreement with the Government before legislation was drafted. During that time 20 payload applications were received under the Rocket Lab Agreement - none were declined.

Hefkey told Newshub New Zealand punches above its weight in the international arena.

"The way the Government's set up the regulatory environment is encouraging for space as a business in New Zealand. The only downside is not as much opportunity in the venture capital field so trying to take new and innovative businesses off the ground takes money."

Hefkey says there's only so much the Government can do to.

"At the end of the day we're only a country of 4 million people; there's only so much money we can put into it.

"If we put money into rockets or space it has to come from somewhere else. What we can do is encourage businesses, startups and venture capital funds to look at New Zealand as a place to invest and you can set up regulatory regimes to do that business."

Four Kiwi students have been recently selected for NASA internships under a new agreement between the space administration and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Dr Crabtree is excited about New Zealand's future in space.

"We see the New Zealand space industry as a sector that makes a material contribution to the broader economy, the great thing about the space sector is its very high-value activity.

"It's high productivity, it's innovation led, the jobs have really high skills and they have big supply chains and it connects you into a global economy as well."