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Right-Sizing Space

Mark Howard
Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

A little more than a year ago, the chairman of the University of Florida's astronomy department, Rafael Guzmán, visited his native Spain, where he met with a friend who's an official of INTA, the Spanish space agency. Guzmán spoke about UF's interest in building small packages of sensors and devices for astronomy-related research that could be rocketed into space. INTA, for its part, had been researching and developing small, low-cost satellites for more than a decade.

The conversation suggested a collaboration, and in November, UF and INTA signed a memorandum of understanding. UF will develop scientific payloads and try to find launch opportunities in the U.S., most likely from the Kennedy Space Center. INTA agreed to provide the satellites themselves — the sophisticated housings that carry the payloads. The university has already spoken with NASA about having a small satellite included in a program in which the space agency offers "piggyback" space to smaller payloads on one of its large missions.

The UF-INTA collaboration is a small step, but it's important. It advances the ball, even if slightly, on one of the state's stated objectives: Space Florida, the umbrella organization that coordinates space industry strategy and activity, calls for "sustainable activities" in small satellites by 2013.

The collaboration also helps shift our collective attention away from Florida's traditional identity as just a home for blastoffs. As NASA has phased out the shuttle and the Space Coast scrambles to find jobs for displaced workers, politicians and journalists (this magazine included) have focused too much on Florida's competitive position in the "emerging commercial launch" business — providing launch pads and facilities for private companies shooting rockets into space.

The launch business won't sustain us. For one, while it's "emerging," it's not emerging all that quickly. Between 2005-09, there were just 16 commercial launches from the U.S., accounting for 14% of the total worldwide in that period. In 2009, there were a total of 24 commercial launches, with four from the U.S. According to a forecast in the Space Report, the authoritative annual report on global space activity, the number of commercial launches worldwide each year won't rise above 30 through 2018.

The other problem with the launch business is that it's "about the cheapest part of the space industry," says Peggy Evanich, a former NASA aerospace engineer and program director. She now works as a scientist in the UF astronomy department helping research faculty compete for new space research activities. Evanich says the high-value part of the space industry — and the sector where the Space Report expects the most growth — is "manufacturing and developing new space technology." Florida, she says, "is on the low-value end of the supply chain."

In that context, a sense of scale. Large satellites — a typical Department of Defense spy satellite or a NASA satellite like the Cassini, an exploratory mission that will orbit Saturn — may be the size of a school bus and cost billions. The payload of a small satellite, by contrast, may be no larger than the central processing unit of the computer in your office, weigh as little as 20 pounds and cost around $1 million.

Devices that can be carried aloft in small satellites include astronomy or life-science experiments, communications gear and remote sensing devices that can monitor anything from crop health to climate phenomena to border security — exactly the kind of research-related efforts that our universities are focusing on. Small satellites also may offer the potential to unbundle the functions of a large satellite into an array of smaller satellites that work together to accomplish the same function as a larger unit but with less risk. If one piece of a large satellite fails, the entire expensive apparatus becomes useless. With a group of smaller satellites, one can be replaced relatively easily, and the overall mission can resume. A separate initiative headquartered at UF, the Advanced Space Technologies Research & Engineering Center, is researching such "multi-satellite systems" and received some initial funding from Space Florida.

Evanich says the state — at its universities, high-tech firms and particularly NASA — has the technical expertise to develop a small-satellite industry. Need for physical infrastructure is minimal because of all the existing launch-related facilities at the Cape, she says.

The Department of Defense is interested in small-satellite technology. The agency has built at least three smaller spacecraft and has allowed secondary payloads like smaller satellites to piggyback on its bigger satellites. Several of the state's high-tech defense contractors have expressed interest in using small satellites as part of other technologies they market. Other potential investors in a small-satellite program have also approached UF, she says.

Evanich says it will take about five years to develop a small satellite industry — too long to help many of the workers displaced by the loss of the shuttle. But she cautions that if Florida doesn't begin to develop a small satellite industry within that five-year window, "we will lose the opportunity forever."

Ultimately, the UF-INTA collaboration reminds us that, with the space industry as well as other economic spheres, Florida can't get by on its physical assets — the weather and coastline that make it a good launch site. Ultimately, our intellectual and technological capital will determine the health of our space industry — and our overall quality of life.

Meanwhile, the UF-INTA partnership is among the contenders for a $10-million grant that the European Union will award to one group with a promising small-satellite project. The EU will announce its decision in May or June. Says Evanich: "We're looking at all opportunities and pursuing what we can."

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