Oamaru next space frontier

The first light of a new dawn in the space age could break at Oamaru Airport.

Dawn Aerospace has signed a memorandum with the Waitaki District Council that makes launching the space flight company’s new prototype space planes — a plane with rocket propulsion — a possibility from the North Otago town, potentially this year.

It could bring dozens of high-paying jobs — and a multimillion-dollar industry — to the district.

Dawn Aerospace general manager James Powell said the company’s aim was to capitalise on the burgeoning satellite market by developing reusable spacecraft that provide regular, cheaper access to orbit to deliver satellites and other equipment, such as that used for scientific experiments.

"It completely changes the economics of space flight."

The technology was also more environmentally friendly than previous technology, he said.

Waitaki District Council chief executive Fergus Power (left), Dawn Aerospace general manager...
Waitaki District Council chief executive Fergus Power (left), Dawn Aerospace general manager James Powell and Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher gather at Oamaru Airport after signing an agreement that may lead to rocket-propelled space planes. Photo: Craig Baxter
The Christchurch and Netherlands-based company, which has support from the European Space Agency, was working on the next generation of its design, and test flights of the unmanned rocket-propelled spacecraft were planned for this year.

The "Dawn Mk2" space plane’s technology, now in the testing and qualification phase, would eventually make it the first rocket-powered craft able to go into space twice a day, revolutionising the industry, he said.

Oamaru was a possible location for those test flights, where the 4.8m-long space planes take off, reaching up to four times the speed of sound before reaching an altitude of 100km.

"The real key thing with this is a ‘space launch’ is expensive and it’s very, very wasteful," Mr Powell said.

"Almost everyone builds a rocket that gets used once, and then it’s destroyed.

"A rocket’s really expensive to build, and really hard to build. But by us building a system that’s just like a commercial aircraft means that we re-use it hundreds if not thousands of times. So, it doesn’t matter that it’s quite expensive to build.

"The cost of flight is really low. The real key with this is that it’s a fundamentally vastly more scaleable system than anything rocket-based."

He said the sound emitted from a space plane, which did not shed equipment such as boosters in space like rockets, was similar to other aircraft.

"It’s really designed just to be like a conventional aircraft. A conventional jet is pretty loud, but manageable, so our system will be the same."

An artist's impression of Dawn Aerospace's space plane, which could be taking off from Oamaru...
An artist's impression of Dawn Aerospace's space plane, which could be taking off from Oamaru into space later this year. Image: Supplied
Before any flights were confirmed from Oamaru, Mr Powell wanted the company to ensure the public was "absolutely" kept informed about progress through extensive consultation.

"A really important and fundamental thing about Dawn is we are building a very scale-able system to scale in a large way. It has to be a system that works with everyone ... and everyone can tolerate.

"If we are building something people don’t get along with, we need to change it so it works with and for everyone."

Satellites, once the size of an incredibly expensive school bus, were now far more sophisticated and only the size of a microwave.

Over the next 10 years, telecommunications satellites were expected to boom.

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher said the memorandum of understanding would allow a more detailed feasibility study to take place.

The mayor said the council had faith that the ambitious project would become a firm reality.

"This is the next frontier for us," Mr Kircher said. "Watch this space."

The council would not have staged yesterday’s media opportunity "if we didn’t have high confidence that this is the real deal", he said.

There had been "initial discussions" about the opportunity as well as some of the operational elements of the airport.

The airport’s relatively few users, its rural setting and its proximity to the ocean were selling points for the company.

"It’s another level of diversification [of the district’s economy] and that is absolutely fantastic," Mr Kircher said.

The establishment of Heliventures and the New Zealand Airline Academy were both "big deals" for the until recently underused Oamaru Airport, but the prospective arrival of Dawn Aerospace was "another big deal" for the council-owned asset.

Mr Powell said, in a "perfect world", Dawn Aerospace would begin construction of  an operations base at Oamaru next  year, and within the next three to five years establish a "reasonably significant operation".

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