NewSpace Initiative connects ASU with space industry

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The next big thing in space research is small. Small, agile companies and small, inexpensive devices are changing how we explore the universe. Arizona State University researchers are working with both.

 NewSpace Initiative connects ASU with space industry

By Nate McIntyre

Dec. 4, 2015

If you’ve followed the news from space recently, you’ve probably heard of companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Planetary Resources, Deep Space Industries and other newcomers to the industry. You might have also heard the term “NewSpace” used to describe them. But what does that word mean?

“It’s commercial entities that are building, designing, operating, thinking about space-related projects and applications, but it’s not always the usual players—the Boeings and the Lockheeds,” says Jim Bell, a professor in Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) and director of the NewSpace Initiative. “It’s usually smaller, more nimble, more entrepreneurial kinds of companies.”

The field is growing rapidly. NewSpace Global, a company that provides information on the NewSpace industry, is tracking nearly 900 companies that have entered the industry, up from around 500 just a year ago. These include everything from small startups working on technology projects out of someone’s garage to companies with thousands of employees designing and building new rockets.  

University-industry collaboration: the final frontier

Until recently, space exploration has typically involved relationships between government and industry or between government and academia. The relationship between academia and industry has traditionally been weak. ASU’s Space Technology and Science (or “NewSpace”) Initiative is leading a new integration of academic and commercial space enterprises using ASU’s core strengths in space science, engineering and education.

One challenge is that academia and industry typically define success differently. For scientists and faculty, the goal is usually knowledge and training for students. For industry, the goal is usually boosting the bottom line. Matching these two worldviews is not always easy to do, but it’s what guides the initiative’s philosophy.

“We’re never going to go to a company and ask them for money,” says Bell. “We’re going to go to a company and say: ‘Here’s what we do, here’s what you do, here’s how we can work together, here’s the money we can go after together.’”

ASU’s extensive experience in space science and exploration is an asset to companies working in this area. For example, ASU is home to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) and the Center for Meteorite Studies. The university is also a key participant in NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter, the Curiosity and Opportunity rover missions to Mars, and the upcoming Mars 2020 rover mission.

ASU researchers have forged a number of smaller relationships with space companies for their own projects over the years. Scott Smas, the initiative’s program manager, is working to identify and leverage all of ASU’s space-related teams and their connections into something bigger for both the university and the industry.

“An example is an electrical engineering faculty that has built up a relationship with a space-related company,” Scott says. “We want to expose that whole group and the company to SESE, or to chemistry and biochemistry, and enable them to collaboratively submit bigger proposals than just a small sub-contract.”

More than 150 ASU faculty members have some involvement with the space industry. Over the last two fiscal years, these relationships translated into $69 million in research funding through 211 awards. About sixty percent of those awards came through SESE and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. But the rest came through perhaps less expected units, such as the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, the Biodesign Institute, and the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning.

Ultimately the initiative’s goal is to expand into an institute that ties all of these interdisciplinary avenues of space research together across the university. The institute could support a wide range of space-related academic programs, courses and degree programs, and offer robust internship programs that allow students to get valuable experience before graduation and give companies a chance to participate in cutting-edge research while training potential future employees. To that end, ASU recently became an associate member of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the trade association for the NewSpace industry.

“One thing these NewSpace companies want is our best graduates. They all want interns and employees in the future,” Bell says. “We can do that, and we do that well, but so does Stanford and MIT and all these other places. We distinguish ourselves with our experience—space mission experience, robotics, instrumentation, science, engineering, and all the CubeSat stuff that’s going on across campus now.”

CubeSat revolution

CubeSats are small satellites up to the size of a shoebox that scientists and engineers started experimenting with in the early 2000s. Their small, lightweight, modular design allows them to hitch rides as secondary payloads on rockets launching larger satellites and remain in orbit to perform their tasks afterward. This makes them relatively cheap and easy for researchers at universities or small companies to build for a variety of purposes.

The CubeSat standard emerged from early experiments at ASU and Stanford with nano satellites (these weighing less than 10 kg). The industry around them is experiencing a re-emergence in the U.S. and is particularly strong in Japan and Europe. Tech companies ranging from small startups to Google are looking at a variety of business applications for CubeSats. For example, a single CubeSat or small group of them could be equipped with cameras and set to cover a city like Phoenix. They could be used to monitor traffic in certain areas to help urban planners, or to monitor a business parking lot or that of a competitor to estimate customer activity. CubeSats can also monitor weather, facilitate communications, perform microgravity experiments, and more.

“Every field goes through its golden era,” says Jekan Thanga, an assistant professor in SESE who helps organize the Cubes & Coffee: CubeSat Coffee Hour on ASU’s Tempe campus. “The big space sector had its golden era in the 1960s, and that culminated in the Apollo landings. So this is now its re-emergence.”

With space agencies and launch providers now investing in their potential, CubeSats are experiencing exponential growth in terms of projects and launch opportunities. ASU is taking an active role in the field. Faculty and staff at SESE and affiliated with the NewSpace Initiative are working on rebuilding the university’s radio ground station. Once complete, this will give ASU the full range of in-house space operations capabilities—from building a CubeSat to communicating with it in orbit.

“That’s possible right now by only a handful of universities and organizations–maybe less than 15,” says Thanga. “That’s our longer term vision: building, launching and operating our own space missions”

That vision is already well on its way to coming true.  ASU was recently selected by NASA to design, build and run a mission to the moon using its own CubeSat, the Luna Polar Hydrogen Mapper (“LunaH-Map” for short).

Weighing only about 30 pounds, the spacecraft is nonetheless incredibly powerful. Over the course of a 60-day science mission, it will produce the most detailed map to date of the moon’s water deposits, unveiling new details about the depth and distribution of the ice that has been tentatively identified from previous missions. Confirming and mapping those deposits in detail will help NASA understand how much water might be available and will help inform NASA’s strategy for sending humans farther into the solar system.

This is the third major space project for which NASA has selected ASU in the past year, and it is the first planetary science spacecraft mission that will be led by ASU. It represents a major achievement for planetary geologist Craig Hardgrove, who will be overseeing the project as principal investigator. Now an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, he was a postdoctoral research associate when he proposed the $5.5 million mission.

This is ASU’s first interplanetary mission – this is our mission, our chance to trail blaze

“All of our previous NASA mission involvement has consisted of us having instruments on other people’s missions. This is ASU’s first interplanetary mission – this is our mission, our chance to trail blaze,” says Bell, the mission’s deputy principal investigator.

Thanga is a co-investigator on the mission and its chief engineer. Much of the design and development of the LunaH-Map will be done in his Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) Laboratory and in clean rooms in ASU’s state-of-the-art Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4. The team will be working in partnership with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and several other partners supplying space-qualified hardware and services, as well as leveraging technology from at least six small commercial space companies with expert knowledge and experience in building spacecraft hardware: Radiation Monitoring Devices, Busek, KinetX, NASA’s Ames Research Center, Catholic University of America, and Planetary Resources.

“It’s a privilege to be leading this fantastic team, and I want to make sure we do it right and deliver on our promise to NASA,” says Hardgrove.

Thanga and SESE professor Erik Asphaug are working on another mission set to launch in 2016 that exemplifies ASU’s space research capabilities. Their CubeSat will carry pieces of meteorites into Earth orbit in an attempt to recreate the surface conditions on asteroids millions of miles away. This will enable them to re-create an environment for scientific study that would be too costly to visit for most researchers. The research will be relevant to the kinds of missions that NASA and NewSpace companies are considering, and will provide valuable training for students.

“It enables us to give students a real flight project that is entirely owned by ASU, that gives them the skills so that when, say, five years from now we launch a 6U [large CubeSat] asteroid orbiter, they know what this is,” says Asphaug. “It’s not like this crazy, far-fetched thing–it’s just the next thing.”    

Small cost, big opportunity

For Hardgrove, one of the most exciting things happening in the industry today is the birth of low-cost planetary exploration, such as that provided by CubeSats.

“I think a lot of doors open when you get the cost down to the prices we’re talking about,” he says. “We’d really like to get more faculty and staff working with commercial space partners.”

The tiny crafts are an especially good opportunity for students and early-career scientists such as Hardgrove. The low cost of construction and operation of the CubeSats provide an opportunity for young researchers to operate missions of their own.

Jekan Thanga adds: “We’re going to see master’s students and even undergraduate teams launch CubeSats and operate them and incorporate that as part of their educational experience before graduating.”

Students who want to learn more about the NewSpace industry may be interested in the following courses:

Commercial Opportunities in Space (SES 494/598)
Policy Dimensions of Space Exploration (HSD 598)
Interplanetary CubeSat Design (SES 598/MAE 598)

NewSpace is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled thousands of scientific discoveries, over 800 patents, 280 new startup companies and hands-on training for approximately 33,000 students across Arizona’s universities. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

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