Media Release: New Zealand Flies To The Stratosphere With NASA

April 4th, 2024

Christchurch-based aerospace venture Kea Aerospace has successfully secured New Zealand government support to collaborate with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Founded in 2018, Kea Aerospace is partnering with NASA Research Centres to advance high-altitude airborne earth observation techniques.

The project will focus on using Kea’s solar-powered stratospheric plane to monitor coastal water quality, a key environmental issue for New Zealand.

New Zealand’s coastal ecosystems are one of its most astonishing and valuable assets” says Dr. Daniel Price, Chief Scientist at Kea Aerospace who is leading the collaboration.

New Zealand’s rivers, which all end at the coast, face the constant threat of pollution, principally from agricultural activity.

There are some pretty powerful satellites on orbit to help us monitor things, but we want to bring things a little closer to home. With Kea Aerospace’s technology, we can monitor things at a much higher resolution than satellites, and that’s what’s exciting to NASA,” Price says.

The project, Next-Generation Airborne Remote Sensing: High Altitude Persistent Coastal Ocean Monitoring, or more succinctly HAPCOM, will examine ways to install state-of-the-art camera systems onboard Kea Aerospace’s high-altitude solar-powered aircraft and deliver high resolution images and data back to researchers.

The aircraft is a lot closer to the earth’s surface than satellites and can therefore achieve a much higher resolution. That means we can see more detail than ever before, and persistently monitor things over an area of interest.

Our aircraft operates in the stratosphere, 50,000 to 65,000 feet up, above all the weather, and is able to provide constant, high resolution monitoring of coastal areas which satellites struggle to do” says Mark Rocket, CEO of Kea Aerospace.

In the future, we believe our stratospheric aircraft will be a valuable tool in helping develop better policy related to ocean and coastal ecosystems as there will be a huge leap in the quality of the data available for decision-making.

Kea Aerospace will work directly with colleagues at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Los Angeles and the NASA Ames Research Center near San Francisco.

These research centres are pioneers for satellite and airborne earth observation,” says Price.

NASA will be lending a hand with regards to specialist image processing and algorithm development, and, in the future, be able to provide state-of-the-art camera systems.

We hope we can be part of the next chapter of earth observation, and establish a base in the stratosphere for improved data for environmental monitoring and protection”.

The global satellite earth observation industry is burgeoning but has disadvantages including limited image resolution, extended revisit times and high costs. Stratospheric aircraft like Kea Aerospace’s ‘Kea Atmos’ could play a critical role in making up for these shortfalls.

Kea Aerospace will launch its aircraft from the newly-opened Tāwhaki National Aerospace Centre, south of Christchurch.

It’s the ideal spot to monitor water quality with the once-pristine and now heavily polluted Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) nearby,” Price says.

This region will provide a perfect testbed for these new technologies to monitor coastal ecosystems and develop methods to support long-term rejuvenation efforts.

As part of the MBIE Catalyst: Strategic – New Zealand – NASA Research Partnerships 2023 grant, the project will begin this month. The initial stage of funding of $75,000 could lead to around $1 million if key objectives are met.

### END


View the stories on TV3’s Newshub and Star News.