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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
A new “Made in New Mexico” solar array will soon head to the moon on a NASA spacecraft care of the Air Force Research Laboratories’ Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base.
Public and private satellites and space vehicles may also start carrying a new device to alert ground-based operators about hazardous radiation like solar storms before they can damage spacecraft, also care of the AFRL.
Those technologies and more were developed in New Mexico in the last few years in partnership with private companies that are now marketing them to public and commercial entities for deployment in space. And a lot more is coming, thanks to the U.S. Department of Defense’s strategic focus on modernizing its space-based systems and capabilities, plus efforts by Air Force space entities at Kirtland to tap private sector ingenuity to help rapidly design and build new innovative technologies.
Multiple missions ahead for ‘ROSA’
AFRL built the new made-for-space solar system, called the Roll-Out Solar Array, or ROSA, in partnership with California-based Deployable Space Systems and two private firms in Albuquerque: LoadPath LLC and SolAero Technologies.
It’s a flexible solar array that can be rolled up into a tiny, lightweight package on satellites and other vehicles for the trip to space. It then deploys in a rapid, spring-like action when the spacecraft reaches its target point, shooting out into a straight, sturdy, flat panel to power the vehicle.
AFRL and DSS tested ROSA on the International Space Station in June 2017, and DSS is now marketing it to public and private customers.
NASA announced in the fall that it will use ROSA to power an orbital vehicle around the moon as part of NASA’s “Gateway” program, which aims to land women and men on the lunar surface by 2024, said Capt. Christopher Box, deputy manager for the Space Vehicles Directorate’s Integrated Structural System Program.
“The ISS flight experiment was a 100% success,” Box said. “Through that success and publications at space technology conferences, word got out that it’s a successful system with a flight heritage.”
NASA also plans to deploy ROSA on its Double Asteroid Redirection Test, or DART mission, which in October 2022 will ram a space vehicle into a moonlet rotating around an asteroid to alter the moonlet’s orbit as part of experimental efforts to protect Earth against asteroids in the future.
And Maxar Technologies, in Palo Alto, California, also plans to use ROSA to power a new geostationary communications satellite.
Radiation scouting device aids safety
Separately, Applied Technology Associates in Albuquerque will begin marketing a new device for hazardous radiation detection around spacecraft. ATA helped design the technology, called the Compact Environmental Anomaly Sensor, and then licensed it to further develop it for use by public and private entities.
AFRL built the device, which is about the size of a long shoebox, to provide better understanding of the environment around space vehicles to protect them against potential radiation-related damage, said Adrian Wheelock, program manager for the Space Vehicles Directorate’s Space Systems Survivability Program.
“That’s important to the Air Force as we go into contested space operations to be better poised to react,” Wheelock said. “… The sensor will be able to respond when something goes wrong, giving what could be near-real-time awareness of environmental hazards.”
The sensor is currently deployed on a spacecraft that launched in June 2018, and ATA will now be the commercial vendor for it.
“They will make all future versions to make it a commercially available product,” Wheelock said.
NM awash in space expertise, funding
New Mexico is front and center in building those products and many others because so much of the Air Force’s space-related capability and expertise is based at Kirtland. Apart from the Space Vehicles Directorate, that includes the Space & Missiles Center’s Advanced Systems and Development Directorate and the Space Rapid Capabilities Office.
Hundreds of millions of new dollars have flowed into programs run by those Kirtland-based entities in recent years, and more is included in the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Ac, which the president just signed into law, said U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM.
That act includes $63.3 million for the Rapid Capabilities office and the Air Force’s Space Test and Rocket Systems Launch programs at Kirtland. Another $46 million will boost Air Force research and development of resilient space technology, satellite launch services and tactically responsive launches.
Military, private partnerships key
Approval of a new Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military, to be housed under the Air Force, is the next major step in the DOD’s strategic focus on space. And it could mean more funding for New Mexico operations going forward.
“As the Space Force continues to organize and structure itself, it is critical that we do not look to reinvent the wheel, but rather ensure that we leverage existing organizations dedicated to keeping the U.S. at the forefront of space innovation for decades to come,” Heinrich said in an email to the Journal. “I will continue to advocate on behalf of those organizations, many of which are right here in New Mexico.”
Military partnerships with private industry are helping to build a thriving commercial space industry here, especially given the exponential growth in private investment in space technologies in recent years.
Global space spending reached $417 billion in 2018, up from $339 billion in 2016, according to the nonprofit Space Foundation. And Bank of America Merrill Lynch projects $2.7 trillion in global space investment by 2045.
The AFRL has spearheaded the efforts to partner with private firms in New Mexico. To facilitate that, it is working with the ABQid business accelerator run by CNM Ingenuity, which manages all commercial endeavors for Central New Mexico Community College.
The AFRL and ABQid launched a new “Hyperspace Challenge” in 2019 to pair private firms with military specialists seeking help on space-related technologies. Participating companies work for three months to develop solutions to complex problems, culminating in a weeklong accelerator in Albuquerque with cash prizes for the best proposals.
The event helps private firms win contracts with the military and other entities like NASA, said Matt Fetrow, director of AFRL NM’s Tech Engagement Office. At the first challenge in fall 2019, six of the 10 participating companies later won contracts, and 14 companies participated in the latest event last November.
New technologies will emerge to improve everything from launch, control and monitoring of satellites to cleaning up hazardous junk in space and monitoring for threats against spacecraft, Fetrow said.
“It’s tremendously important as we launch constellations with thousands of satellites to ensure a safe, secure environment in space, and a lot of that is happening right here in New Mexico,” Fetrow said. “There’s robust activity underway on all those things.”