Lift off for space centre

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The establishment of a space research centre in Alexandra will signal a return to the “research heyday” of decades ago when other prestigious science facilities were in the region, the chairman of the Centre for Space Science Technology (CSST) steering committee says.

Barrie Wills said the benefits of the CSST – for which $14.7million of funding was announced by Minister of Science and Innovation Steven Joyce on Tuesday – would be far-reaching and permanent. It would put the region’s scientific research on an international standing and bring New Zealand to the forefront of the space industry.

The CSST project will establish an international satellite data exchange and collaborate with leading researchers and businesses, both here and abroad, to design, build and launch New Zealand’s first fleet of cube satellites.

The CSST will then use the space-based measurements and satellite imagery to meet the specific needs of regional industries in areas such as irrigation and agriculture, snow and ice, oceans and atmosphere, regional planning and hazard management, data telemetry and forestry.

The Government will provide funding of up to $14.7million over four years for the CSST, and there will be additional funding from industry, and it will operate as a private, independently governed organisation.

The centre will create 44 full-time-equivalent positions, half of which will be in Alexandra and the rest in the centre’s other offices in Dunedin, New Plymouth and Lincoln.

Mr Wills said the CSST would return Alexandra to its previous “research heyday”, when dozens of scientists and other staff were employed by the then Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Ministry of Works’ water and soil divisions.

It would provide a massive boost to the Alexandra economy, not only from CSST staff, but through other spinoffs and flow-on benefits, he said.

The CSST proposal has been led by Bodeker Scientific, an Alexandra-based atmospheric research company owned by Greg Bodeker.

Mr Bodeker said he was thrilled with the Government funding, which followed a significant investment in financial and human resources from Bodeker staff and those in the wider community.

He said the potential benefit of the programme to the Central Otago community was the motivation for the proposal all along.

A trust and board would now be established for the CSST, after which staff recruitment would begin, but there was already significant interest in the project.

He hoped the centre would launch its first satellite between late 2019 and early 2020 and the CSST’s intellectual property and products would hopefully eventually be exported and shared offshore as well.

The CSST is the second successful proposal under the regional research institute initiative after the launch of the Marlborough-based New Zealand Research Institute of Viticulture and Oenology in October.

A third shortlisted proposal, by Southland-based Earth+Vantage, which proposes undertaking research using real-time satellite and ground-based data to lift primary industry productivity, was unsuccessful in its application but will have the option of putting forward a proposal for a second round of funding.

An extra $2.3million has been set aside for technical collaboration between the CSST and Earth+Vantage if this proves possible.