Aerospace Corp.’s iLab encourages out-of-the-box thinking without leaving home

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This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Instead of designing satellites years before they launch to perform specific tasks, what if small multipurpose satellites were designed for a variety of jobs? And what if those satellites could be launched separately before linking in orbit to perform one mission, then reconfigured to tackle a different job?

That’s the concept behind the Aerospace Corporation’s adaptable multipurpose satellite concept, called Hive. “The great thing is you don’t need to know what it’s going to be before you launch,” said Randy Villahermosa, executive director of Aerospace’s Innovation Laboratory, or iLab.

Hive is one of more than 100 iLab projects approved for further investigation or prototyping since March 2017 when Aerospace, which operates a federally funded research and development center in El Segundo, California, for the U.S. Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center and the National Reconnaissance Office, converted its library into iLab to encourage what Villahermosa calls “the sort of random collisions that lead to great ideas.”

Aerospace’s iLab bears a striking resemblance to an Ikea store although the adjacent areas are furnished to encourage collaboration not to look like kitchens, offices or bedrooms. There’s a 1950s-style diner, a living room with comfortable couches, a small theater and a conference room enclosed in a glass cube.

“We create different spaces because everyone has a different comfort level for different types of environments,” Villahermosa said.

Aerospace employees, Air Force officers and visiting contractors can explore ideas in iLab. Aerospace offers its employees week-long sabbaticals where instead of performing their regular jobs, they flesh out ideas in iLab. After a week, they pitch their idea to Aerospace executives who decide whether to fund it.

“More than half the time, we’ll fund them to build a prototype,” Villahermosa said.

Aerospace oversees the subsequent technology development work but licenses promising products to commercial partners. As an example, Villahermosa points to the Micro Dosimeter that Aerospace developed and licensed to Teledyne Advanced Electronic Solutions of Lewisburg, Tennessee.

MarsDrop is one of the ideas conceived in iLab. Aerospace is working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in nearby Pasadena, California, to design small, flexible pods that could ride along with large Mars missions. The pods would fall through the sky, land on the red planet, deploy petals to open and perform experiments.

“You would be able to launch several on a mission to Mars,” Villahermosa said.

U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson (right) and John Stopher (second from right), director of the Principal DoD Space Advisor staff, visit iLab in December. (Credit: Aerospace Corp.)
U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson (right) and John Stopher (second from right), director of the Principal DoD Space Advisor staff, visit iLab in December. (Credit: Aerospace Corp.)

Another iLab project, Launch U, began with an intriguing question. If a startup brings a cubesat or small satellite to a launch provider today, what prevents it from flying tomorrow?

An iLab team discussed the question during what it calls a “hack session” with Virgin Orbit in 2017. The group concluded cubesats were not the ideal form factor for launch vehicles. Instead, small satellites could be packed into standard Launch Units the way package-delivery giant UPS fills cargo containers before loading them on airplanes.

“With the Launch U concept, we are working on a standard that would allow us do to that,” Villahermosa said.

Carrie O’Quinn, Aerospace senior project engineer, has been working with teams in the small satellite community to develop new standards, which the team hopes to reveal in August at the Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah.

Aerospace’s iLab is “a very collaborative environment where I can share a challenge that I’m faced with and we can all brainstorm a solution quickly,” O’Quinn said by email. “The ability to get things done quickly and with a lot of autonomy is very empowering.”

If Launch U helps satellites reach orbit more quickly, it could pave the way for testing of Hive multipurpose satellites. Unlike cubesats, which usually function independently or as part of a constellation, Hive satellites are interlocking, reconfigurable satellites designed to join, semi-detach and climb over one another to rearrange themselves.

“The big problem with cubesats is a physics problem,” Villahermosa said. “You can only have so much aperture and power in these small form factors. But if these satellites link up and act cooperatively, we can start to imagine getting the same capability as a big satellite.”

Hive satellites could, for example, create a large optical telescope. They could even move around to change the shape of the telescope mirror.

Working in “iLab gave me the opportunity to assemble a team of subject matter experts to evaluate and ensure feasibility of the Hive concept,” said Henry Helvajian, Aerospace’s Hive project team leader. “It was an honor to be trusted to develop and deliver such a novel concept.”

Aerospace engineers are investigating the best method for linking Hive satellites, which could be equipped with synthetic aperture radars, visible and short-wave infrared cameras. They originally envisioned using electromagnets to join Hive satellites in orbit. A recent visit to JPL convinced Villahermosa the team should explore Gecko Gripper, an adhesive device whose sticking power can be turned on and off.

Whatever linking mechanism is selected, Hive satellites will be able to detach satellites that fail. “Now we have satellites that can reconfigure on orbit,” Villahermosa said. “It’s a potential solution for resiliency.”