Christchurch is the leaping off point for one of NASA’s premier astrophysics programmes – and one day it could be a gateway to outer space exploration for the masses.
That’s the view of international space consultant Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, who was recently onboard NASA’s largest flying astronomical observatory SOFIA as a guest observer after an invitation from the US Embassy.
SOFIA, a modified Boeing 747SP that captures images of planets, stars and asteroids, has been operating out of Christchurch for the last seven winters.
“From the start to finish, the whole operation can be compared to a space mission – which it truly is. SOFIA can be thought of as a spacecraft or satellite like the Hubble Telescope. The difference is that you can swap out instruments, add, modify and upgrade every time it goes on a mission, which is not possible with a spacecraft or satellite once its launched,” Emeline said.
As a little girl growing up in the Philippines, she dreamed about one day travelling to space.
Emeline is now the co-founder of SpaceBase NZ, a New Zealand social enterprise whose mission is to democratise space for everyone by co-creating space ecosystems. Through work with SpaceBase, she has spent a lot of time in Christchurch.
“The city has a good reputation in the technical community for being a host for major international scientific projects. We need to build on that reputation and make the world aware of these capabilities to expand into international business opportunities.”
She and fellow SpaceBase NZ co-founder Eric Dahlstrom feel there is major expansion of space activities on the verge of happening.
“Most current space missions are similar to SOFIA, but we feel that future space activities will be more similar to the general activities you now see at Christchurch airport.
“There will still be the specialised government research missions such as the SOFIA 747 and the US Antarctic Program C-17. But in the future, you may have space missions more like the commercial passenger and cargo aircraft that make Christchurch a busy airport. Christchurch became an international airport less than 70 years ago. Routine travel to space may happen in the next few decades.”
Emeline loved her time onboard SOFIA and sees opportunities for Christchurch’s emerging space industry from hosting programmes like it.
“While SOFIA is just one programme, it serves as a symbol of cooperative international projects in Christchurch. The city has been very welcoming, giving access to controlled airspace to meet the needs of the specific operation, and being an excellent host city.
“By responding to the special needs of the NASA programme, and even making regulatory accommodations, Christchurch has demonstrated it will make special efforts for new space projects,” she said.