Arizona boldly grows into deep space exploration hub

Aerospace | 26 Sep, 2016 |

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of local Arizona aerospace enterprises. If you think for a minute that Arizona enterprises don’t measure up to “The Enterprise,” think again. We may not have Spock, Kirk or warp drive, but what Arizona does have is an impressive list of some of the most progressive aerospace contributions in the nation.

From commercial and private sectors, alongside extremely competitive planetary and astronomy university programs, this desert state is an oasis for aerospace innovation. Missions to Mars and interplanetary asteroids and complex satellite, orbit and navigation systems are only part of what have made Arizona a top contender in deep-space exploration and preparation.

When considering “deep space exploration,” one may be tempted to visualize a monolithic bunker smack dab in a desolate Arizona desert, complete with docking station where an Enterprise or X-Wing fighter is in some impressive state of construction. Although that may be a reality for Arizona in a decade or three, our current aerospace contributions focus on the infrastructure and inter-workings of deep-space missions.

Where we skyrocket (pun intended) is in providing the essentials — life support, thermal control and habitat design; without which, those shiny rockets would not have a payload the public can get excited about.

Perhaps Grant Anderson, president and CEO of Paragon, explains it best when saying, “Warp drive is sexier than life support.”

Paragon, striving to be No. 1 in life-support systems, has and continues to affect many of the design elements of spacecrafts, and although they may not be sexy, they’re essential.

“We make sure life support isn’t an afterthought,” Anderson explains.

In a study Paragon conducted for the proposed, but now in limbo, “Inspiration Mars,” Paragon was instrumental in conceptualizing habitat architectures that were both maintainable and redundant — not an easy feat, according to Anderson.

As far as current life support projects, Paragon is working on a NASA-awarded contract for a patented lonomer-membrane Water Processor (IWP) that will soon be tested on the International Space Station (ISS). This particular application is designed to increase the ISS water supply, reduce costly water deliveries from Earth and can be used for high-efficiency (up to 98 percent) water recovery for future deep space missions.

While a Mars mission simmers on the back burner, other deep-space endeavors are underway — perhaps most notably the OSIRIS-Rex mission. Spearheaded by the University of Arizona under the leadership of professor and principal investigator Dante Lauretta, spacecraft OSIRIS-Rex will travel to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu the beginning of September.

The $800-million dollar project (not including the launch vehicle) is a collaborative mission that includes commercial aerospace involvement with companies like Lockheed, who built the spacecraft, and KinetX Aerospace, directing navigation.

“This will be the first mission to bring back enough asteroid material to examine thoroughly,” says Tim Swindle, University of Arizona director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL).

The material Swindle refers to will be extracted from a 500-meter asteroid just inside the Earth’s orbit. Bennu is particularly lucrative as a study subject, as it’s suspected to have the kind of organic molecules that seeded Earth when life was starting.

In addition to collecting samples (slated to return somewhere around 2023), OSIRIS-Rex will transport an infrared spectrometer. This technological contribution comes from another Arizona academic institution — Arizona State University.

Dr. Phil Christensen, regents professor of Geological Sciences, Arizona State University was commissioned to build the apparatus to scan the surface of Bennu for minerals.

No stranger to sneaking a peak at celestial sights, ASU is also responsible for THEMIS, a camera capable of producing visible and infrared wavelengths. THEMIS made its debut on Mars on October 2001.

“We have built five instruments for five different NASA missions,” Christensen says, “and we currently send communication to satellites that take 100 images of Mars daily.”

ASU has also submitted a proposal to build an infrared camera for Europa. Jupiter’s small moon, close in size to our own, is an exciting prospect for exploration because of its liquid-water ocean hiding under a thick layer of ice.

While advances in the academic realm rise, so do developments in orbit, navigation and communications systems. KinetX Aerospace has been a heavy hitter in in all three.

“We were the longest-running subcontractor on the IRIDIUM project,” says Kjell Stakkestad, president and CEO, KinetX Aerospace.

Not only did KinetX help develop and implement the IRIDIUM ground system, they also created software for the 66-satellite communication system.

In navigational pursuits, KinetX has 700 years of combined space navigation experience, including spacecraft missions to Mercury and Pluto.

“We are the first commercial company to orbit Mercury,” Stakkestad says.

While KinetX continues to expand on an impressive navigational foundation, another Arizona company is making strides in propulsion and cargo delivery to the ISS.

Orbital ATK has supported missions like “Deep Space One,” the first interplanetary spacecraft to utilize solar electric propulsion; and “Dawn,” that just celebrated a nine-year exploration orbiting two interplanetary bodies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Tempe-based Qwaltec, a systems engineering, mission readiness and technical-training program management company, has become an invaluable asset to sister commercial aerospace companies in terms of deep-space exploration preparation.

“They bring us in before a launch,” explains Qwaltec Co-founder and CEO Shawn Linam. “What we do applies to any space system. Most of our business is satellites, but we apply the same application to human space flight systems — reading telemetry from vehicles; training actual crews; running risk assessments and establishing mission rules.”

Now back to that space-docking station in the middle of the dessert. While there can be no promise of a glimpse of a Millennium Falcon under construction, if you look at the right spot in Tucson, you may see a high-altitude Stratollite balloon on its way to hover essentially on top of the Earth’s atmosphere.

World View, which also set the human stratospheric ballooning altitude record with the “StratEx” (Stratospheric Exploration) mission, has successfully tapped into the market for luxury experiences with a space-exploration twist.

“When we began to explore this idea, the timing was right, particularly in relation to Baby Boomers. They want experiences,” explains World View Chief Technology Officer Taber MacCallum.

World View goes beyond the half-trillion dollar luxury experiences market, however, by utilizing Stratollites as a means of transporting commercial payloads such as sensors, telescopes, communications arrays and more.

With all the navigating, orbiting, innovating, strategizing and conceptualizing taking place in Arizona’s aerospace industry, what can we look forward to in further deep-space exploration advancement?

“In the end it’s a political will,” MacCallum says, “I’m biased, but I think it’s tragic not to have a human deep space exploration mission that is on the books and adequately funded. We can also do a lot with the funding NASA has, if we do it differently.”

“Arizona is one of the leaders in the nation,” Christensen says, “Between UA — which has one of the best astronomy programs and planetary science programs — and ASU — as one of a handful of universities that can build instruments on campus — I bet Arizona is poised to be in the Top 5 for space exploration and space science.”

“I’m always excited about the possibilities, but they don’t always come along,” Swindle says, “You never know which ones will come along for you. “

MORE: Want to hear about what’s going on in Arizona’s aerospace industry? A panel of experts will be talking aerospace and more on Oct. 5 at the HEAT Forum.

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