University of Auckland chosen as base for NZ's first space mission control

New Zealand's first official Government-funded space mission will be run from a new mission control based at the University of Auckland. 

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods on Friday said it would be operated by US company Rocket Lab for the first 12 months, before transitioning permanently to the university's Te Pūnaha Ātea-Auckland Space Institute. Rocket Lab was founded by Kiwi rocket scientist Peter Beck. 

The first mission will be the launch and operation of a global methane tracking satellite, MethaneSAT, run in conjunction with US charity Environmental Defence Fund.

"MethaneSAT is a really exciting opportunity to showcase New Zealand's science and research expertise on the world stage, while making a significant contribution to climate change by mapping agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases," said Woods. 

MethaneSAT will carry equipment allowing it to detect methane concentrations as low as two parts per billion, "enabling regulators, businesses, and researchers to track and reduce emissions faster".

The Government in 2019 put $26 million towards the project, the bulk of it going towards the construction of the Mission Operations and Control Centre (MOCC). 

"Rocket Lab's technology changed the way satellites are launched, and now we're changing the way important global missions are operated and managed too," said CEO Peter Beck.

At $5 million each, Rocket Lab's launches typically cost less than those provided by other private space companies. 

"This new MOCC, and the New Zealand Space Agency's participation in this important climate change mission, are fantastic enablers for our academic and scientific communities to realise the economic and spill-over benefits of New Zealand’s strong and growing reputation in the international space industry."

The planned mission control.
The planned mission control. Photo credit: Supplied

All going well, MethaneSAT will launch in late 2022. The New Zealand arm of the project will be led by atmospheric scientist Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

"The high-resolution maps available through MethaneSat will complement our surface measurements, which are more sensitive to emissions at the surface and have more information about methane changes with time compared to the satellite data," she said in 2019, when the mission was first announced.

"Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, so there are significant immediate climate benefits to reducing methane emissions."

Rocket Lab has had 17 successful launches and two failures to date from its launchpad on New Zealand's Mahia Peninsula. New Zealand in 2017 became the 11th country in the world to launch a rocket into space.