Morehead State sends mini-satellites into space… and other surprising facts about Kentucky’s thriving aerospace industry
This is the second in a series of stories about aerospace efforts at Morehead State University and in the state of Kentucky.
“Cube satellites are democratizing space to pretty much anyone who wants to do research,” says Jacob Owen, assistant director for NASA Kentucky, in Lexington.
He explains that these little satellites, known as CubeSats, allow all kinds of researchers, including high school students, to build actual working units that can be shot into space to perform experiments, something undreamed of a generation ago. Back then if you wanted to do anything satellite-related you had to first get a graduate degree, and a job at NASA. Then wait 10 years.
But CubeSats have changed the game. And a few Kentucky universities have, perhaps surprisingly, taken a leadership role in this nascent field.
All this is part of a larger story regarding Kentucky’s aerospace industry, a dramatic-sounding, but often misunderstood section of Kentucky’s economy that is, pardon the expression, taking off.
In 2013, the state’s aerospace exports totaled a record $5.6 billion, quietly besting far more publicized industries, such as Kentucky’s auto-vehicle manufacturers, which came in second at $5.5 billion. (As for bourbon/whiskey, it exported $300 million in 2013.)
Some of these aerospace companies are actually pretty well-known, including: General Dynamic Corp., Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon Company.
I asked Owen why aerospace is doing so well in Kentucky. One reason, he said, is because the state is a major transportation hub for couriers UPS and DHL, meaning it’s easy for manufacturers to get parts. Another is Kentucky has a strong manufacturing history, which has helped it produce the hands-on workforce needed to make these sort of sophisticated machines.
Then we spoke about CubeSats, and why they’ve been embraced at Kentucky universities. “They bring together cross-disciplinary teams,” he says. “And if they’re successful and a spot opens, they get to fly into space.” Not a bad incentive. In a sense, CubeSats present an exciting gateway technology for students, in turn hopefully creating the next generation of in-state aerospace engineering and design talent.
First, though, what is a CubeSat? They are fully-functioning but diminutive satellites that can range in size from a toaster to about the size of a dishwasher. The theory is that you shoot dozens, or even hundreds, of them into space, where they can pretty much cover the entire planet, and then all congregate together in a matter of minutes when something interesting happens. Like when a plane goes into the Indian Ocean. If there were an armada of little sats in space, Malaysia 370 might’ve been found immediately.
Some other things they can do include using radio frequencies to scan warehouse inventories, and track fleets of sea-going ships. They can also track multiple storms and natural disasters around the globe, updating every 10-15 minutes, much faster than a typical satellite.
Not only are CubeSats smaller than typical satellites, they’re all much cheaper. Some can cost as little as $10,000 versus traditional sats, which can cost $400 million. Making them a relatively inexpensive way to get into space.
Also, because they’re cheap, if you lose one, it’s no real big deal, there are still scores more scanning the planet. They can also be updated more quickly than a traditional satellite, because their generational life is so much shorter.
Also, because they’re relatively easy to build and cheap, you can even have them do experiments that might not be worth the time of a mega-satellite.
One example, Owen says, involves a CubeSat called KySat-2. This little satellite was entirely designed, built, and tested by students at the University of Kentucky and Morehead State University (MSU). It launched Nov. 19, 2013, and is still orbiting in space. (Its predecessor satellite named, yes, KySat-1, died young, when its rocket failed during launch.) “It can try new things that have never been done before,” says Owen. One trick is that it can orient itself based on pictures of stars.
As mentioned it was built by students at UK, and Morehead State. Which raises one obvious question: Morehead State?
Yes, the relatively unheralded school nestled in the hills of eastern Kentucky has planted quite a flag in the world of CubeSats, having launched five into space since 2011.
In fact, MSU was able to lure two top CubeSat brains from Stanford University. They are Dr. Robert Twiggs, one of the inventors of CubeSats, and Dr. Kevin Brown.
Last week, I visited Morehead State and asked Brown how he came to leave Stanford for Kentucky in 2011. (For my prior story on how MSU is working to revive a long-dormant satellite click here.)
“Everything is happening here,” he says. “It’s a combination of the facilities and what can be done. Here there’s so much more capability, and room to grow. There’s more potential here than there.”
Brown says he feels far more supported in his work at MSU than he did at Stanford, where his entire lab might be the size of an office. At MSU he has use of the school’s entire Ronald G. Eaglin Space Science Center building. This 45,000 square-foot, $15. 6 million facility has its own massive clean room, a mission control, planetarium, and something called an anechoic chamber, which is basically a sound-proof room designed to mimic the electromagnetic environment of space.
He also has more autonomy than at Stanford, he says, and the potential to make more of an impact. Earning a $10 million research grant is no big deal at Stanford, but could signal a sea-change at MSU, he says.
But what about the beauty of Palo Alto? “My commute was an hour a day, now it’s seven minutes,” he says, “depending on which stoplight I hit.”
Since arriving at MSU Brown has overseen the creation, and successful launch of the CXBN (Cosmic X-Ray Background Nanosat) satellite. It took 18,000 student hours to build three versions of the breadbox-sized satellite. There are three versions because one goes into space, one is left disassembled, and one is considered the “engineering” model, which is complete, but stays on Earth.
CXBN measures cosmic rays, and launched in 2011.
How can MSU afford to actually send these satellites into space? After all, Brown says, launching CXBN, all 2.5 kg of it, likely cost $1 million, way beyond the school’s budget.
The answer is MSU is opportunistic, says Dr. Benjamin Malphrus, director of the school’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences. They not only apply for grants to get on NASA rockets, they also do work-in-kind with rocket-launching agencies around the globe. MSU’s goal is that their little sats can become secondary payloads on missions someone else already paid for.
“How do we get rides to space?” he says. “It’s through grant competitions with NASA, but we fly with Europeans, we fly with Russians, we’ll fly with anyone that will give us a ride.”
How did MSU get on a Russian rocket? Malphrus says the school built components for Italians that had a contract to launch satellites on Russian rockets. “It’s kind of barter system,” he says.
Is this a problem now that Russia has become a bad international actor? Malphrus says this is to be determined. The problems, he says, are not in the space community, where there is even a jointly held Russian-Ukrainian firm called ISC Kosmotras.
Most recently Morehead launched its newest satellite, Eagle-1, which went up last December, at the relatively thrifty cost of $100,000, and a year’s effort. It’s even smaller than CXBN, which was its entire point, says Malphrus. “This one was a technology demonstration to prove you could build satellite components in a form-factor this small.”
Right now MSU has plans to build a next-generation Eagle-2, which will not only be tiny, but able to do scientific experiments in space. When it’s ready, you can be sure MSU will find a way to finagle it into the final frontier. Or as Malphrus puts it: “We’re kind of like the barnacles of the space industry.”
Next in our series on Kentucky Aerospace: Two Rowan County high school students may have struck aerospace paydirt!