New Zealand innovation headed for space

New Delhi: A research collaboration between Wellington Faculty of Engineering’s Robinson Research Institute and UNSW Canberra Space will accelerate the adoption of novel technology for use in satellites.

The collaboration, which recently received $500,000 in funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Catalyst Space fund, will focus on the use of superconducting magnets in satellites.

“With these magnets, we’re aiming to create a light-weight and energy efficient propulsion system to help satellites maintain or change orbit,” says Dr Nick Long, Director of the Robinson Research Institute and lead researcher on the project. “With this system, the satellites can use solar power to provide thrust, rather than carrying chemical propellants from Earth that they burn in space.

“These magnets can also potentially be used to protect satellites from radiation, capture space junk, and store energy—they’re a very versatile technology.”

In particular, scientists from Robinson Research Institute will be investigating the thermal management of cryogenic superconducting magnets.

“We will be looking at the best way to use cryogenic technology to keep the superconducting magnets cold,” Dr Long says. “The magnets have to be kept cold, and it has to be done efficiently, otherwise the energy efficiency benefits of this technology are negated. This is a crucial feature of this technology.

“We also have to carefully design the magnet system to make sure the energy needs of all parts of the satellite, including the cryo-cooler but also other components like sensors and communications, are met in an energy-efficient way.”

The collaboration will give Wellington scientists access to specialist design facilities at UNSW Canberra Space which will help integrate the superconductor system design with the rest of the satellite.

“This project will allow us to become proficient in using the Concurrent Design Facility at UNSW Canberra Space,” says Dr Long. “This facility allows for the integrated design of the space mission and space craft and will help us build the design software we need to model the use of our superconducting magnets in satellites.”

Using this facility will also benefit UNSW Canberra Space, Dr Long says, as the design tools developed by the Robinson team will be incorporated into the facility, allowing for improved spacecraft and space mission design when using other components which are cryo-cooled.

“Robinson scientists have a world-wide reputation for the development of superconducting devices for transportation, space, and energy applications. This work will build on our existing experience and make sophisticated design tools available to our commercial partners. It should greatly accelerate the adoption of advanced magnet technology in space applications such as propulsion, control systems, and radiation shielding,” Dr Long says.

UNSW Canberra Space Director Russell Boyce says: “We are greatly looking forward to working with what is a leading group on magnet technology, using this technology in novel ways to improve satellite capabilities, and boosting trans-Tasman space collaboration in the process.”