Women in space

Published Dec 9, 2021

Working for Wellington UniVentures, Nicole van der Laak and Julia Rothman are developing novel technologies that are launching the space industry into a new era.

The past decade has seen a resurgence of space research and technology that has not existed since the space race of the 1960s. Instead of reaching for the sole goal of space flight, this time the industry has branched off into a plethora of varied technologies that hope to improve life here on Earth as well as further humanity’s exploration of the vast unknown. In a report by Deloitte, the New Zealand space industry was worth $1.75 billion in 2018 - 2019 and it’s only been growing since then. Wellington UniVentures’ Senior Commercialisation Manager, Nicole van der Laak, and Government Liaison for Space and Defence, Julia Rothman, are supporting innovators at Robinson Research Institute, as their research takes shape, helping them to connect with those in the space ecosystem.

Nicole’s work is quite literally propelling us into the next era of space technology and exploration. Nicole is leading the commercialisation of a project by researchers at Robinson Research Institute who are developing electric propulsion technology for satellites. Receiving funding from MBIE last year, the team aim to launch the technology into space in 2025. Unlike traditional propulsion technology, which burns fuel to accelerate, electric propulsion technology uses solar-powered thrusters that will capture energy from the sun and convert it to electric power to fuel the thrusters. This new technology has potential to make satellites lighter, more efficient and more durable. Nicole hopes that this sort of technology will lead to making life better on Earth.

“Accessing space can and should make a difference to our lives – whether that’s through improving connectivity to areas unreachable by land-based technologies, providing data services and enabling equitable access to space data, or earth observation to provide special information to improve water and food production and farming techniques,” says Nicole.

“New Zealand is already a part of this – we have a home grown launch provider, numerous start-ups in the aerospace sector and we have a broad base of manufacturing capability which has the opportunity to grow into a high-tech manufacturing sector to enable space flight and services.”

As a chemical material scientist, Nicole spent over two decades holding several research positions around the globe including in the U.K, Hong Kong, and Australia. For ten years, she conducted research on energy storage in supercapacitors and batteries before undertaking roles that bridge the gap between industry and research. It was only since joining Wellington UniVentures in 2019, that Nicole found that her decades of research experience could be applied to further space technology; it has put her in an ideal position to advise on the commercial development pathway to bring electric propulsion technology to market.

Unlike Nicole, Julia had wanted to enter the space industry since her youth. As an avid sci-fi enthusiast, Julia’s childhood was spent dreaming of the distant galaxies and advanced space technologies. However, a clear path into the space industry was never presented to her. Instead, she studied maths and physics, eventually attaining her undergraduate degree from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington. From here, Julia embarked on a mission across the Pacific Ocean to the United States in search for her next steps. As a practically-minded individual with an ardent curiosity about how and why things work, Julia started a role as a research scientist with the United States Airforce. Here, she was finally able to pursue her interest in space technology as she worked to design and launch satellite systems.

“I made my way into the space industry with a lot of hard work and a bit of luck. I’ve often thought my biggest motivators towards working in space were from entertainment. I watched a lot of sci-fi tv, like Star Trek and Dr Who – I think my love of these shows defined a lot of my decisions to get into this field of work growing up,” says Julia.

Julia started working for Wellington UniVentures earlier in 2021. In her role, she is developing partnerships for the spacecraft system technology being developed by Robinson Research Institute. Additionally, she is working on a space situational awareness (SSA) project and another effort examining Space Weather, which relates to collecting and processing data about objects in space and the environment they are operating in. SSA is important to develop effective processes to manage space traffic as well as improving space safety. As an experienced space systems engineer, Julia is using her wealth of knowledge to advise organisations such as government of the opportunities this technology holds.  

“I believe that New Zealand has something to contribute on the worldwide concern of SSA and a host of other concerns due to our location. There has been a 15-year lag between scientific research and commercialisation in the space hardware industry, however that doesn’t necessarily mean that space data analysis takes the equivalent time. Our space data analysis can impact New Zealand much quicker,” says Julia.

As pioneers of space technology and innovation, both Julia and Nicole are leading the way for future generations of women who are captivated by space and the vast unknown. Both are also part of Women in Space Aotearoa NZ, a network for women working in space in Aotearoa to provide mentorship and to encourage the next generation of New Zealand women to pursue a career in space.

“We’re on the cusp of another evolution in the space industry,” says Julia. “It’s suddenly becoming very competitive. What used to be the remits of large governments is now more accessible and open. The tech keeps improving and more development is happening and it’s incredibly exciting to be part of that.”