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Space race redux

Artist’s concept for a new Navigation Technology Satellite, NTS-3. The satellite, which the DOD plans to launch in 2022 and which is being built by private contractors, is expected to improve the U.S. Global Positioning System. (Courtesy of 1st Lt. Jacob Lutz/Air Force Research Laboratory)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico is front and center in a new global race to dominate space, and it’s creating huge commercial opportunities for the emerging space industry here and elsewhere.

The U.S. Department of Defense is rapidly standing up its new Space Force, approved in December by President Donald Trump as the sixth branch of the military. And, by and large, the DOD is turning to private industry to provide the 21st-century technology needed to maintain U.S. leadership as the world moves to conquer the final frontier.

New Mexico is playing a key role in those efforts, thanks to its long history as a hub for military-related space development through a myriad of DOD space entities at Kirtland Air Force Base, plus critical research, development and testing infrastructure provided by the state’s national laboratories and installations like White Sands Missile Range.

The military’s efforts, in turn, are helping to build the state’s industrial base through emerging Air Force and Space Force partnerships with new and existing companies, and through DOD and civilian efforts to connect innovative technology firms with defense-related opportunities.

Air Force Research Laboratory scientists conduct an experiment in the Space Vehicles Directorate plasma chemistry lab used to understand how the space environment affects spacecraft in orbit.

Simultaneously, a new age of commercial-led human space travel is transforming the state into a global center for space-related activity through Spaceport America in southern New Mexico, and through Virgin Galactic’s plans to fly paying passengers to the edge of space. Those efforts, too, are boosted by public-private partnerships with civilian entities like NASA, and by military contracts for companies to test new technologies at the spaceport.

U.S. Air Force Col. Eric Felt

It’s a parallel military and civilian process, but one fundamentally connected through development of modern, cutting-edge technology. And it’s paving the way for low-cost access to space, which in coming years could make travel to the moon and beyond an everyday reality, said Col. Eric Felt, who heads the Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland.

“It’s a perfect storm that’s coming together, spurred by broad national interest in doing things in space, and by technology development that’s reached a new level of maturity,” Felt told the Journal. “Declining costs and new capabilities have reached a tipping point. We’re seeing a technology nirvana now … and New Mexico is at the center of a lot of it.”

NM and the DOD

Most public attention is focused on commercial space and the activities gaining momentum at Spaceport America.

In contrast, not many people are aware of New Mexico’s central role in developing DOD’s new Space Force, said Matt Fetrow, director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Tech Engagement Office in Albuquerque.

Matt Fetrow

“The DOD and the Air Force have moved quickly and aggressively to set up the Space Force, but it surprises folks here to learn about those efforts in New Mexico,” Fetrow said. “People ask what, if anything, is happening here. But the Space Vehicles Directorate – which is the technology arm for space-related development – is part of the Space Force now, and it’s based at Kirtland.”

So is the Space & Missiles Center and the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, among other entities. All are directly involved in developing, testing and operating the military’s existing and emerging space systems, Col. Felt said.

That emerging technology will provide the backbone for Space Force operations, more so than any other branch of the military, and nearly all of it will be built by private industry in partnership with the DOD.

“The vision is for the Space Force to be the most tech savvy of all the services to keep ahead of adversaries,” Felt said. “And it’s not just what we (the military) develop, but all the emerging commercial technology, which accounts for about 80% of today’s technology development. Only about 20% comes from the government now – a total reversal from the 1960s – and we’re looking at how to tap into that 80%.”

Private sector role

To do that, the DOD is aggressively reaching out to private industry. The Air Force began a technology accelerator program in 2017 for innovative startups and others to compete for funding to build new products and services. And in July, the Air Force announced a new “International Pitch Day” in partnership with U.K. defense agencies for companies to compete next November for funding to fast-track new space innovations.

AFRL New Mexico’s Tech Engagement Office has partnered with the ABQid business accelerator on an annual “Hyperspace Challenge” that launched in 2018 to pair private firms with military specialists seeking help on space-related technologies. Companies work for three months to develop solutions to complex problems, culminating in a week-long accelerator with cash prizes and opportunities to pursue contracts.

This fall, the accelerator will focus on building autonomous controls for satellites.

“That implies a lot of software development, and New Mexico has great computer science and software businesses that we hope to engage,” Fetrow said.

Faster contracting

The Space Vehicles Directorate also created a new rapid acquisition capability last year – the Space Technology Advanced Research, or STAR, program – to streamline contract awards through rapid review and approval of proposals, said STAR acquisition senior advisor John Beauchemin.

“The basic principle is to mine industry for innovation,” Beauchemin said.

Two Albuquerque companies won contracts through STAR since the spring. SolAero Technologies, which makes robust solar systems for spacecraft, received $4.5 million to develop automated processes for building solar modules to speed production and lower costs, said Michael Riley, Space Vehicles Directorate deputy program manager for advanced space power.

Engineering firm Applied Technology Associates won $16.9 million to develop technology to enable satellites to use higher frequency communication bands for increased data transfer, and to improve optical communications for satellites to share information.

Brad Clevenger

Those technologies and others under development will benefit both space defense systems and commercial industry going forward, said SolAero president and CEO Brad Clevenger. As the government pumps more money into private enterprise, it strengthens industry, while also building new products that commercial entities can use.

“The government is often the driver for new technology that, if successful, can also be sold to commercial customers,” Clevenger said.

Tougher tech

Today’s defense-related space development is focused largely on resiliency, making current systems more robust to withstand potential attacks from adversaries, while also creating new capabilities for military operations in space and on the ground. And many of those new technologies could have immense impact on society in general.

The Space Vehicles Directorate, for example, is now working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado and industry partners to build platform technology to collect solar energy in space and beam it to Earth for use anywhere across the globe. That would allow the military to supply power on demand for warfighters or installations in remote places, but it also has huge potential commercial applications, said James Winter, project manager for the Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research project.

“It’s essentially gridless power you can plug into in places where there’s no infrastructure,” Winter said. “That’s a potential game changer.”

A new Navigation Technology Satellite, NTS-3, which the DOD will launch in 2022, could greatly bolster the U.S. Global Positioning System. The Naval Research Laboratory’s NTS-1 and NTS-2 satellites flew in the 1970s and led to GPS.

NTS-3, being built by three private contractors, will substantially upgrade space-based position, navigation and timing techniques to withstand interference, Col. Felt said.

“Today someone can jam our systems using a jammer the size of a coffee cup,” Felt said. “That creates real vulnerability. This new technology will make our systems much more resilient.”

Other DOD projects could focus on placing satellites in non-traditional orbits, such as very low-Earth orbit using new propulsion systems to keep craft aloft, or in areas near the moon and even slightly beyond to expand space domain awareness as NASA and commercial companies develop new lunar and deep-space missions.

New Space NM, an industry association that launched in 2018 to help build the state’s commercial space industry, is working to connect local companies with all the emerging opportunities, said New Space CEO Casey DeRaad.

“There’s exponential growth and opportunities that New Mexico is well-positioned to take advantage of,” DeRaad said. “There’s so much going on and it’s happening so fast, it’s hard to keep up with it all.”

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