Cooking Up a Storm in Space with Dr Sarah Kessans

Cooking Up a Storm in Space with Dr Sarah Kessans

Growing up in the fields and forests of southern Indiana in the USA, Sarah Kessans has always been curious about how the natural world works. Currently teaching students in the School of Product Design as a lecturer at the University of Canterbury (UC) in the Chemical Formulation Design programme, Sarah is also involved in a range of research projects, from synthetic biology to space technology development. Sarah is also a member of the Aerospace Christchurch committee, and is excited to see aerospace flourishing in Canterbury! 

After studying plant biology at Purdue University, Sarah completed her PhD at Arizona State University, where she developed and tested a plant-based HIV vaccine candidate. Sarah then began a postdoctoral position at University of Canterbury, working to understand bacterial evolution. “I hadn’t initially intended on staying in New Zealand, but I fell in love with the natural beauty of the South Island and the incredible communities around Christchurch, and after a few years, I really didn’t want to leave.”

Sarah secured a second postdoctoral position at UC, and was a Finalist Interviewee in NASA’s Astronaut Candidate selection at this time, which opened her eyes to the opportunities in space research. “It became one of my missions to support and expand New Zealand’s fledgling space industry.” Some of the projects she is working on now are looking at the possibility of building habitats on Mars with the development of fungal materials, and understanding how biosynthetic pathways in microbes can be manipulated to produce food in space.

Sarah’s team is expanding the opportunities to conduct research in microgravity by developing tiny autonomous research laboratories on CubeSats, starting with a payload studying protein crystals. Protein crystallography is helpful for scientists to understand disease, in the drug discovery process, and to better understand life on Earth. Getting the proteins to crystallize on Earth can be tricky, however, and so enters the role of the International Space Station! Experiments conducted on the ISS have shown that microgravity can allow for the growth of larger and higher quality crystals than those produced on Earth. “Our team has developed a payload that will help us get these bigger and better protein crystals in space, and we’re looking forward to launching our first prototype later this year!”

The collaborative nature of her projects is what Sarah loves most, combining the strengths and knowledge of each team member to come up with creative, novel solutions to tackle challenges. The aerospace community in New Zealand, and Canterbury in particular, is growing quickly with a collaborative, supportive nature. “Our community understands that a rising tide lifts all boats, and thus we’re all committed to each other’s success, with many throughout the sector willing to help share their knowledge and time. When you add that to a substantial manufacturing base and a growing number of companies involved in the aerospace industry, you’ve got a recipe for success!”

Seeing students with more and more opportunities to enter the industry and pushing the aerospace sector forward in Aotearoa is what drives Sarah. “Although it’s no secret that I would love to explore space myself, getting to inspire the next generation and help build a future human spaceflight programme in Aotearoa would be a dream come true for me.”

Aerospace Meet Up #18: Mars Plus

Aerospace Meet Up #18: Mars Plus

Our 18th Meet Up was yet another fantastic evening! We had a very special appearance from Hon Dr Megan Woods celebrating the new Tāwhiki Project with us! We also heard about what life on Mars might one day be like with the amazing projects and research from our line-up of speakers.

Life In Space
Dr Sarah Kessans, Lecturer, University of Canterbury
Life on Earth has evolved to thrive in the relatively cushy habitats found on the surface of our home planet. As humans venture further from home for longer periods of time, keeping them alive using only limited resources becomes a greater challenge. The development of life support systems for sustainable off-Earth habitation will not only facilitate life in space but can enable more sustainable living on Earth as well. Sarah gave an overview of projects going on both globally and at UC.

Habitat Construction For The Moon And Mars
Dr Allan Scott, Associate Professor, University of Canterbury
The long-term establishment of self-sufficient settlements on the Moon and Mars will require the extensive use of in situ resources to construct habitats and infrastructure. Concrete is the most widely used construction material on Earth, and the vast majority of the necessary components for concrete construction are also available in various forms on the surface of the Moon and Mars.

Mission To Mars – Antarctica As An Analogue For Mars
Miranda Satterthwaite, Antarctic Academy Director, International Antarctic Centre
With reference to recent Mars Meteorite and Antarctic Aerospace missions, Miranda Satterthwaite outlined how NASA’s Journey to Mars informs Mars analogue training at the International Antarctic Centre.

New Zealand Space Agency Update
Kate Breach – Technical Specialist – Aerospace, MBIE – New Zealand Space Agency
Set up in 2016, the New Zealand Space Agency is the lead government agency for space policy, regulation and sector development. Kate delivered an update on the New Zealand Space Agency.

A special thank you to our Gold Event Sponsor MBIE – New Zealand Space Agency!

Thank you also to our supporter ChristchurchNZ and to the Ara Institute of Canterbury for hosting the event.

Dark Sky at Night, Astronomer’s Delight

Dark Sky at Night, Astronomer’s Delight

One of the quietest spots on the planet, Tekapo has some of the world’s darkest and busiest skies, and is home to the Dark Sky Project. We were lucky enough to have the Dark Sky Experience and take a look at the amazing Canterbury skies.

Formerly Earth & Sky Stargazing, Dark Sky Project was founded in 2004, by Tekapo locals and night sky enthusiasts Graeme Murray and Hide Ozawa. Beginning with a research project at the Mt. John Observatory, the project has grown to host over 40,000 visitors on a range of exclusive stargazing experiences every year. Situated in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, they are leaders in astro-tourism and advocates of dark sky preservation. Searching for knowledge of space and understanding of creation, Dark Sky Project strives to make the night skies accessible to all and inspire lifelong passion and understanding for dark sky preservation. Partnering with Ngai Tahu Tourism in July 2019, the next chapter of their journey began with a new astronomy centre in Tekapo, with aims to establish the region as the best in the world for discovering the night skies. 

A place for people to connect and discover, Dark Sky Project is a uniquely New Zealand experience and the region’s centre of astronomy and stargazing, with a 125-year-old Brashear telescope and many other astronomical offerings. The Summit Experience is the ultimate stargazing experience, with stunning mountain surrounds, beautiful skies and state-of-the-art viewing technologies. A world-renowned astronomical centre, the experience is in partnership with the University of Canterbury at Mt John Observatory, with expert guides sharing the stories and science of our skies. The Dark Sky Project also offers a world first, daytime experience, bringing together Māori heritage, science and multimedia installations in ‘Big Bang’ of inspiration and wonder; the Dark Sky Experience is a treat for the senses and is educational and entertaining, as well as thought-provoking and fascinating.

We had the opportunity to visit the Dark Sky Project this April. Set in the stunning surrounds of Tekapo, the Dark Sky Experience was an amazing peek into the great skies of New Zealand. A clear night meant we could see bright stars, the moon and the incredible Tarantula Nebula. The Tarantula Nebula was named for its glowing filaments which resemble the legs of a spider, and is an H II region of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion galaxy to the Milky Way. The Dark Sky Experience combined the science of what we could see in the sky with local cultural heritage and knowledge into one fantastic encounter.

Coming up on the 26th May, Dark Sky Project will be holding a lunar eclipse party at their private Cowan’s Observatory. With several telescopes and guides to see the Moon and other deep sky objects, this event is not to be missed! The party will run from 9.30pm til midnight, offering BBQ snacks, hot drinks and a shuttle service with every ticket. Dark Sky Project is also working hard to establish an astrophotography tour, which will run a couple of times every month at Cowan’s Observatory. 


Left to Right: Luca Devescovi and Daniel Gaussen, Dark Sky Project – Mt John Observatory 

Dark Sky Project is home to many amazing guides, astronomers and scientists, passionate about sharing what they do. A proud, guiding team leader at Dark Sky, Luca Devescovi has loved astronomy since he was a child. Born in the North-East of Italy, Luca was a chef for twenty years before he decided to follow his life-long curiosity for astronomy. “I couldn’t have made a better choice, not only because of my passion for astronomy, but also because I’ve discovered how much I love guiding and teaching too.” He is fascinated with physics and has a particular interest in black holes and supernovae, and is proud to work in “one of the most important stargazing companies in the world.” 

Daniel Gaussen is also an astronomy guide for Dark Sky Project. Daniel studied astronomy and planetary science in the UK and has a passion for understanding the universe and for photographing deep space. Daniel is grateful to work under the beautiful Tekapo sky and loves to “share what I know about astronomy with people of all ages, and I believe that understanding the night sky makes it even more beautiful.”

One of the top astronomical research observatories in New Zealand, many astronomers carry out their research at the Mt John Observatory. Planetary astronomer and Rutherford Discovery Fellow Michele Bannister is one such researcher, as well as a lecturer at the University of Canterbury. Her research focuses on our Solar System, investigating the formation and evolution of planetary systems, collaborating on international planetary missions around the world. She spoke at our ‘2020 Over and Out’ Meet Up in November about new space exploration possible from the new Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile and opportunities to map the night sky in new ways. The Mt John Observatory provides world-class facilities for NZ-based research, hands-on learning opportunities for university and school students, and amazing tourism experiences for all.

In the world’s largest dark sky reserve, the Dark Sky Project connects people to the night sky. Educating and inspiring visitors on the importance of night sky preservation, the Dark Sky Project offers unique experiences for visitors, locals, and researchers under the beautiful Tekapo skies.

Aerospace Christchurch Meet Up #17: Projects to Inspire

Aerospace Christchurch Meet Up #17: Projects to Inspire

Once again we had an absolutely superb line-up of speakers for this Meet Up, Projects To Inspire. Our speakers talked to us about some of the inspiring projects currently taking place in New Zealand.

Helping To Save The World’s Rarest Dolphin With Technology
Tane van der Boon, CEO, Co-founder, MAUI63
MAUI63 has combined large UAV’s with computer vision artificial intelligence to collect data about critically endangered marine mammals. Tane talked through the different components of the project, and gave some detail into the technology used and their journey to date.

UC Aerospace Club Update
Jessica Logopati, President, UC Aerospace
Jessica provided us an update on the year ahead for the UC Aerospace team.

I’ve Got A Cunning Plan – An Edible Drone
Phillip Harrall AFC MPhil, Windhorse Aerospace
Phillip has been involved with a number of start-up companies, three of his own and Windhorse Aerospace with a small team of four. Taking a dream and making it a reality is really hard, but managing expectations is harder.

Titanium Additive Manufacturing For Spacecraft
Peter Sefont, Technical Director, Zenith Tecnica
Zenith Tecnica, a contract manufacturer specialising in titanium 3D printing, has become a world leader of Electron Beam Melting (EBM) additive manufacturing since its establishment in 2014. Peter highlighted the benefits and capabilities that titanium 3D printing can offer to spacecraft manufacturing.

Defining And Achieving Success
Geraint Bermingham, Director, Navigatus.aero
Navigatus.aero specialises in aviation risk analysis, assessment and management. Geraint discussed how success is achieved by first understanding risk in terms of objectives and the UAV Foundation Safety Case (FSC) model that Navigatus has developed. This FSC sets out the essential objectives (the success criteria) and provides a framework that enables the structured assessment of UAV systems to ensure the safe and successful integration of UAV into the national and the international aviation system.

Creating A More Connected Planet Through The Autonomous Air-Transport Of Goods And People
Shaun Johnson, CEO, Merlin Labs NZ
The Merlin Labs team is partnering with the Aotearoa aerospace community in order to build an autonomous aviation infrastructure that will enable the air transportation of goods, and eventually people, throughout New Zealand and the world.

A special thank you to our Gold Event Sponsor Merlin Labs NZ, venue sponsor Ara Institute of Canterbury and support by ChristchurchNZ.

Written In The Stars – David Wright’s Story

Written In The Stars – David Wright’s Story

An expert engineer with a great attitude and plenty of passion, David Wright is the leader of Asteria Engineering Consultancy. Dedicated and knowledgeable, he loves the challenge of finding creative solutions and bringing those ideas to life.

His interest in aerospace began early; his father being a pilot sparked a love of planes. “I loved flying, but I was drawn to the puzzle of how a plane works and I soon decided I wanted to be an aerospace engineer.” Completing his undergraduate degree in Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Canterbury, David went on to complete his Masters in Aeronautics and Astronautics on a Fulbright Scholarship at Stanford University in 2017. After working with Pumpkin Space Systems to develop a range of small satellite hardware, he then returned to New Zealand and started Asteria Engineering Consultancy.

Leaders in New Zealand’s growing space sector, Asteria offers world-class mechanical, electrical and aerospace engineering consulting services. Working closely with clients from concept to manufacture, Asteria provides innovative, specialised and reliable solutions for customers at home and abroad, who want to venture to space. Providing a tailored approach to every project, Asteria works with a range of clients on all sorts of interesting projects, from developing nanosatellites, payloads, and circuit boards, to power systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and specialised batteries.

Together with Dr. Sarah Kessans over the last few months, David has thoroughly enjoyed working on her project to conduct protein crystallization biological experiments in space. As well as this, Asteria is working on a project to develop a magneto-plasma dynamic thruster, led by the Robinson Research Institute at Victoria University. Looking forward, Asteria plans to delve into Gallium Nitride semiconductor power systems. As David explains, “This is the cutting edge of power systems at the moment, and by leveraging this technology we intend to create a platform and knowledge base to enable us to create high performance power systems for customers faster and at a lower cost.”

David sees a lot of potential for the aerospace industry in Christchurch, and believes supporting the people already here and their ideas will see the industry grow to develop a large number of jobs and companies. “When I was young I had a very narrow view of the industry, and thought that in order to have a place in the industry you would have to be specifically trained for that narrow range of opportunities. Whereas, in reality, the range is much wider than I realised when I was young, and the longer I am in the industry, the wider it looks.” The range of expertise needed in the aerospace industry is very wide, and is closely interconnected with many supporting industries and experts from different backgrounds, like graphic design and business. A great community and knowledge base, is what David believes makes Christchurch so great. With enthusiastic university graduates and a keen professional community, there are plenty of opportunities for Christchurch to grow the aerospace industry.

Mission: Take The Pilot Out Of The Plane

Mission: Take The Pilot Out Of The Plane

In January, we had the pleasure of visiting Skybase and it’s Founder Michael Read on site. We got a firsthand look at their “new” aeroplane, currently being upgraded with the retrofit kit. This will enable Skybase to #takethepilotoutoftheplane and use this plane and technology to assist with saving the food supply of 10 million people.

Michael has always been very driven. At the age of 4 he decided that he wanted to be a Pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Everything that he did through school, sport or leisure was to get him to achieve that goal. Michael evidently went on to be a pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force flying various aeroplanes including heavy jets, fast jets, transport, trading and operational flying. A veteran, Michael has also completed a number of operational deployments in Iraq, with his last flight taking place whilst in Iraq.

After the Australian Airforce, Michael went on to work with Martin Jetpack as Director of Flight Operations and Chief Test Pilot, then VP of Sales. One of the learnings Michael took away from his time at Martin Jetpack was “not to build it and they will come” and “engage with the market and your genuine customers first and build to those requirements”.

In 2017, Michael decided to start Skybase with a view to getting drones to fly beyond line of site (BLOS). Being able to fly Beyond Line of Sight is the key to unlocking the potential within the unmanned aviation sector. This is both a technical and regulatory challenge and Skybase solved the technical challenge in a very remarkable way. They then conducted services for a number of years in mapping and surveillance, at which time they realised that using small drones and making them fly like aeroplanes made less sense than turning aerosplanes into drones.

Currently, Skybase are converting their first aircraft into an optionally piloted aeroplane meaning; a pilot can fly it on board as well as offboard. Skybase have done a huge amount of engineering over the last 18 months to get the technology ready to put into the aircraft. Skybase are working with some great providers here in Canterbury and around New Zealand along with providers in the Asia Pacific to get that equipment installed and get the flight test activities underway.

Skybase will be taking a build up approach to it’s flight test activities. Starting with a qualified Test Pilot (ex US Army, and US Test Pilot School qualified) who will work alongside the Flight Test Engineer (ex RAAF, US Air Force Test Pilot School qualified) examining the way all of the tests are being conducted, all the while talking to the Ground Pilot who is sitting in the ground station/ground cockpit. Over the course of the test program, they will take the Pilot out of the aeroplane and finish the testing. Skybase’s technology roadmap takes them out beyond 2030! However, certification will occur before then.

When asked about what are the big growth opportunities in the Canterbury aerospace sector,Michael commented “this is an incubation nation so it has the ability to take your idea and test it to see if it’s going to work. Craftiness, ingenuity doing things off the smell of an oily rag that means you can actually go faster here and see whether your idea is going to work.” and “because this is a first world country with a first world regulator you can test your product and your processes in a manner that is consistent with how your market will do it. Even though New Zealand is unlikely to be a significant market for aerospace products, just by virtue of population size, the problems that aerospace products solve here are very scalable. So coming to New Zealand to do it and in particularly Christchurch which has a lot of manufacturing businesses.”

Michael also comments that “New Zealand is an ideal place for aerospace technology development and testing. With a rich aerospace ecosystem, a highly regarded regulator and soon-to-be created dedicated testing areas, we can move much faster here than most other places on Earth. With challenging terrain, brutal weather, a dispersed population and high operating costs, New Zealand is the perfect place to prove that our technology is robust and we can deliver valuable services to our customers with that technology.”

Written by Victoria Harman, Communications & Event Manager, Aerospace Christchurch