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Head to departure lounge six for destination – space.

It is a long way away, but the possibility of sending humans to space from Oamaru Airport sometime in the 2030s is not outside the realms of possibility, Dawn Aerospace general manager James Powell says.

Earlier this month, the Christchurch and Netherlands-based space launch company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Waitaki District Council to allow the company to begin test launches of its unmanned rocket-propelled space planes.

Dawn Aerospace’s goal was to replace the work of traditional rockets by taking satellites and other material into space.

The planes would reach heights of up to 100km and, rather than disintegrate like traditional rockets, return to the ground to be re-used.

“One thing that is really important about the technology, and our whole methodology of work, is that it is very easy to develop and extend the capability of the vehicle,” Mr Powell said.

“There is no reason in the future the technology, instead of carrying satellites, it could take people.

“It’s pretty far away, but it is absolutely possible.

“We would love to do it.”

The next step was to test the planes to demonstrate their capabilities.

That work could start midway through this year, Mr Powell said.

After the January 17 announcement, some Oamaru residents expressed concerns about the environmental impact of Dawn Aerospace’s programme.

Mr Powell said the fuel used per flight was similar to a jet aeroplane, and the company had developed a system to propel satellites using a less-toxic fuel.

“For the satellite propulsion part of it .. the technology that we have is completely new,” he said.

“It’s something that we developed internally that has some very unique, high-performance capabilities.

“It’s a really important part of the space sustainability thing as well. If you don’t have that, you are essentially just whizzing around with no ability to control your direction in space.

“So if you are going to hit [another] satellite, you just hit it and cause a massive debris field which makes the situation even worse.”

At the end of its life, the satellite could be propelled out of the atmosphere and recovered.

Dawn Aerospace’s project would “definitely” lead to jobs for locals, both in administration and operations, Mr Powell said.

The company could have a satellite loading facility at the airport.

“That is very high-value work, very specialist capability – it’s probably one of the most immediate things on the horizon in terms of potential jobs.”

Public feedback received about the announcement had been “largely very positive”, Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher said.

“We are still very comfortable with the position we are in,” Mr Kircher said.

“It’s early days.”

The council-owned land at Oamaru Airport includes two farms, which were leased out that pay for airport upgrades and maintenance, he said.

“It means the airport largely covers its own cost .. and doesn’t require us to provide any great rate funding.

It was important that Dawn Aerospace caused minimal disruption to other airport users, Mr Kircher said.

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher answers some frequently asked questions about the Waitaki District Council’s memorandum of understanding with Dawn Aerospace.

Q What is the purpose of the memorandum of understanding?

To allow the council and Dawn Aerospace to thoroughly investigate the implications both positive and negative, to determine whether the project will work in, and for, Waitaki.

Q Is it legally binding?

No, it is a sign of goodwill that both parties are committed to fully exploring the opportunity Oamaru Airport offers.

Q Will there be public consultation?

If it is determined that the effects are relatively minor, only limited consultation will need to be carried out, though I think the company would be happy to hold a public meeting to explain their project in greater detail. I’ll talk to them about that possibility. Consultation will focus on other airport users such as existing tenants and drag racers. If the effects are deemed to be greater, then that consultation will be with those most affected such as neighbours, or wider as required.

Q Will rates money be used for this project?

I do not expect that to happen. The only way I can see it happening is if the council was to provide built facilities for Dawn Aerospace. The memorandum of understanding states that such facilities will be leased at market rates, so there is a return to ratepayers rather than a cost.

Q How exactly is the council involved in this project?

The council wears three hats airport operator and regulator, making sure users operate safely and with good procedures. The second is as a landlord, providing land (and possibly facilities) for a rental return. The third is as a council looking to promote positive improvements for Waitaki.

Q What will be the effects of rocket launches?

The concept is that the rockets will operate very similarly to aeroplanes, with runway takeoffs and landings. The noise levels will be evaluated, but will be more like the private jets that already visit the airport rather than vertical rocket launches.

Q When will Dawn Aerospace start its testing?

The company is keen .. if all goes well, to begin operations within the next few months. That next stage involves testing their Mark II shuttle .. before building Mark III, which is the craft that will take satellites into orbit.

Q Will people be able to watch launches?

Absolutely! The testing of the Mark II shuttle will be carried out once the craft is ready, and there are not likely to be any restrictions other than the usual airport and CAA ones in place.

Q Will Dawn Aerospace’s operations affect other users of the airport?

Because Dawn Aerospace is deliberately focusing on a system which operates like a standard plane with normal takeoffs and landings, there will be little interruption to existing users, certainly not full exclusion zones that normal rocket launches require. The council and Dawn Aerospace will continue talking with other users to ensure that all can work together to continue to make Oamaru Airport a better utilised asset for the Waitaki district.