By John Kerr 29/08/2016

New Zealand is about join the space race with a new rocket programme, but Kiwis will need to have a think about how this is going to impact our surrounding waters.

The government has just opened public consultation on new rules about how material jettisoned into the ocean from rocket launches will be dealt with under environmental legislation.

NZ space rocket industry ready to launch

Rocket Lab’s promotional video

Space-faring start up Rocket Lab is planning to provide frequent, low cost launch services to a growing international small satellite industry. Customers recently signed to fly payloads on their new lightweight Electron rockets include NASA, Moon Express and Spire.

Rocket Lab is planning to conduct test launches in late 2016 with a longer-term plan to build towards a maximum of one launch per week from its Mahia Peninsula launch site on the the North Island’s east coast.

Here’s the problem. At various stages of a rocket’s journey into orbit, parts of the rockets are jettisoned as they are no longer needed. Discarded rocket parts range from cables and connectors that weigh just a few grams through to the motor assembly which tips the scales at 350kg.

Some of the parts cast off from the rockets are expected to burn up in the atmosphere during their descent to Earth but there is a possibility that some fragments will land in New Zealand waters. Under existing legislation the government has a responsibility to make sure environmental impacts from commercial activity are sustainably managed.

Ongoing consent applications ‘excessive’

In announcing the consultation Environment Minister Nick Smith said existing regulations covered activities like minerals exploration and seismic surveying but did not contemplate a space industry in New Zealand when they were written.

“The key change in the proposals announced today is that jettisoned material from space launch vehicles will be a permitted activity under the EEZ Act subject to certain controls,” Dr Smith said in a media release.

This means the activity can occur and does not require a marine consent as long as the activity meets certain conditions set out in advance.

“We have undertaken an environmental risk assessment that concludes the effects and ecological risks are low, said Dr Smith.

“Some of the rocket material will burn up in the atmosphere but some may reach the sea and settle on the seabed. It would be excessive to require a full EEZ consent process costing over a million dollars and taking nine months for each rocket launch when the effects from a small amount of rocket debris on the seafloor would be small.”

The Electron Launch Vehicle. From Rocket Lab.
The Electron Launch Vehicle. From Rocket Lab.

Death from above? Jettison impacts considered

The consultation document lays out the potential impacts of ongoing rocket launches and the resulting debris that might land in oceans. A separate commissioned report from NIWA considered impacts including:

  • toxic contaminants from the jettisoned material such as lithium ion batteries
  • ingestion of jettisoned material by animals
  • underwater noise and disturbance
  • direct strike from jettisoned material with seabirds, marine animals or fishing vessels at or near the sea surface
  • smothering of animals living on the seabed.
Splashdown areas (marked in red) for debris from Rocket Lab eastern launches. Full map in NIWA report.


The report considered how each of these threats would affect different species and ecosystems and assessed the probability of occurrence to reach a conclusion about the risk. The authors considered the impact of up to 10,000 launches assuming a worst case scenario in which no debris burned up in the atmosphere. Even under these assumptions, the overall risks to the environment were considered very low.

This was balanced against the benefits of building a space rocket launch industry in New Zealand. An independent economic analysis estimated that the directs and indirect benefits of the industry would be worth $30-80 million to the New Zealand economy.

What do you think? Head over to the Ministry for the Environment website to have your say on the proposal. Submissions close 16 September 2016.

Featured image: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. Credit: Flickr / SpaceX.