New Zealand’s space industry can be seen in the sky, but things take a murky turn when it comes to their supply chains, according to new research from the University of Auckland.

“It’s very hard to engage with the space sector,” said Cody Mankelow, one of the scholars working on the research. “It’s quite closed and hard to break into because they’re growing rapidly, and they’re very keen to protect themselves and that space.”

Life cycle research is critical for continuing our space activities because it helps us understand the environmental impacts of every phase of a mission, said Priyanka Dhopade, lead on the Sustainable Space Initiative. The research includes aspects from design, material selection, satellite manufacturing, launch, and ground support systems.

Dhopade said without transparency on the environmental costs of space activity, the New Zealand space industry risks losing social license from a public that is increasingly conscious of climate issues.

“Without proactive leadership on environmental sustainability, the New Zealand space industry risks losing competitive advantage in a global space market with increasingly environmentally conscious customers. 

“There is also a risk that future purchasing power from the international market will require environmental reporting throughout the supply chain, which will mean increased costs. 

“Life cycle assessment is a way of implementing and integrating solutions to these issues into the industry — and the sooner this occurs, the better positioned the industry will be in the long term.”

The team of researchers attempted a life cycle assessment on a CubeSat, a class of nanosatellites that usually weigh no more than 2kg. The researchers partnered with the Auckland Programme for Space Systems, a student group at the University of Auckland that sent a CubeSat into space on a RocketLab payload in 2020. 

Because a CubeSat’s hardware is available off the shelf, the team thought it would be ideal to gather life cycle information about it without the intellectual property issues that come with dealing with businesses. That is, collecting details like where the materials came from, where and how they were made, etc. But it wasn’t intellectual property that hindered the research, it was the supply chains that were untraceable.

Suppliers didn’t know (or didn’t care to share) where they got their hardware and materials from, which is critical to building a comprehensive life cycle assessment, said Mankelow. “The problem goes right down the supply chain. Everyone’s at a loss because there’s no collective effort to get this done.”

A main takeaway was the need for transparent supply chains. This could be aided by better regulations like the supply chain acts being progressed in the United Kingdom and European Union. Right now companies are not incentivised to gather this data so they don’t bother, said Mankelow. The benefit of governmental incentives is reduced costs and barriers to the largely SME business-driven industry, which may not have the resources or capacity to work through their supply chains to collect the required data.

“There’s just no motivation for them to do it. It’s not even trying to hide something nefarious. These companies are just getting on with their day-to-day so don’t even think about it.” Mankelow and the team are huge supporters of the New Zealand Space Agency and the growth of the space sector, which is hugely influential for the ongoing sustainability of the planet.

“Space systems are integrated into pretty much everything we do. A large majority of Earth observations that we use to understand the climate and biodiversity challenges that we have come from space.

“We believe that it’s important to protect [space], to protect our ability to go into space and because of that motivation we really want to be able to articulate a trade-off to be able to say is sending this satellite in space worth the environmental cost. That’s our end goal.”

The researchers say industry must start collecting better data about the hardware they are developing to maintain the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.

New Zealand’s sector is in the early stages of growth but is already booming. Pre-pandemic, the industry attracted 1.5 percent of global private investment in space and contributed NZD 1.75 billion per year in revenue to the national economy. That’s comparable to long-established industries like fishing and machinery (Both about $2B), and these numbers could be even larger today. New Zealand’s growth has been partly due to the country’s desirable location for space operations due to a combination of geographic advantages, with its clear seas and skies and access to a wide range of launch angles, a skilled workforce, and strong government financial incentives. 

The global industry is growing just as fast. There are now 90 nations operating in space with 2478 satellites put into orbit over the 2022 calendar year. Space-faring nations are historically driven by large government space programs by the world’s superpowers, like Russia, The United States and China.

New Zealand is unique in this aspect, as the country’s entire space sector is 100 percent commercial, comprised of small to medium-sized (SME) companies, which kicked off with Rocket Lab and has only been growing since. Mankelow said the New Zealand space industry has a unique opportunity to integrate international best practices for environment and sustainability at a foundational level.

For example, the government could ensure every space business followed the Clean Space Initiative, Life Cycle Assessment Tool, and Eco-design Framework— all initiatives which would improve space sustainability. While this would add costs in the short term, it will position the industry as a world leader and reduce regulatory costs in the long term, as the international market moves towards more environmentally friendly products.

You can read more about the Auckland Programme for Space Systems here.

Author: Jack Marshall – The Big Q

This article reflects the opinion of the authors and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

Photo with thanks by Jonas Verstuyft on Unsplash

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