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An artist's impression of Dawn Aerospace's space plane, which could be taking off from Oamaru into space later this year. IMAGE: SUPPLIED

Covid-19 has delayed, but not cancelled, Dawn Aerospace’s plans to launch spaceplanes from Oamaru Airport.

In January, the Christchurch-based company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Waitaki District Council to test launch its planes from Oamaru Airport.

The planes could be the world’s first rocket-powered craft able to go into space twice a day, Dawn Aerospace general manager James Powell said.

However, work to develop Dawn Mk2, a prototype of the company’s second spaceplane, had been delayed because international orders had been held up and lockdown restrictions prevented manufacturing and engineering work from progressing.

“Covid has definitely put a spanner in the works,” Mr Powell said.

“We first noticed it in January when international logistics were slowing down a lot, and we were having to mitigate it before anyone knew what it was.

“Internationally, a lot of that stuff got dealt with and handled in February, but that’s when things started to get serious here.”

Dawn Aerospace’s core business of delivering satellites to space was largely unaffected, he said.

“Fortunately, because we got this warning .. we set up a lot of our equipment to be able to operate completely remotely.

“It’s definitely [had] less of an impact on us than aviation in general.”

The Dawn Mk2 had passed its structural qualification tests and was going through ground checks now, Mr Powell said.

Ground control, flight control systems, electronics and avionics were subject to continuous testing, he said.

“All of that stuff is coming together.”

The major hold-up now was getting the green light from the Civil Aviation Authority, he said.

“We are completely at their whim with timeframes.

“We are certainly making good progress and things are going well, and going productively, but it makes it hard to put a timeframe on it when it’s out of our control.”

Mr Powell said the company wanted to make sure Dawn Aerospace did not have a negative impact on other airport users.

“The whole intention is that it doesn’t displace or get in their way.”

Eventually, Dawn Aerospace hoped to be able to launch spaceplanes from any suitable airfield, but Oamaru Airport offered the perfect starting point, Mr Powell said.

“For us, it’s really important that we can fly nationally,” he said.

“But, indeed, Oamaru is where we envisage being able to best set up for the sub-orbital flights that we want to do.

“Because it’s an area of low air traffic and close proximity to the sea, that is a pretty unique combination.

“You can schedule multiple flights a day, because you are not having to get around Air New Zealand and Jetstar.

“It has short commutes, it’s easy to get around and get accommodation, support services and that sort of thing.”

Dawn Aerospace was in talks with the Waitaki District Council about whether it could build its own infrastructure at the airport, or lease off the council, Mr Powell said.

“From our perspective, either option is fine .. it seems the council might be interested in doing the buildings and doing the lease option so they can build some other stuff and get some economies of scale going.”

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher said the memorandum of understanding had been updated to reflect the Covid-19 delays.

While there would be fees for launching the spaceplanes, the financial benefit for the Waitaki district would mainly come from Dawn Aerospace’s use of buildings and facilities at the airport, Mr Kircher said.

“It’s part of diversifying, it’s bringing more attention the Waitaki district as a place that is happy to work with new businesses and go the extra mile.

“It’s a relatively quiet airport and now it is looking considerably busier.

“The key thing is we are working in a way where the different users can work together, it has always been important.

“We need them to be able to do their thing just as much as Dawn Aerospace does their thing.”