NASA’s Ames Research Center is situated amid a longtime hotbed of high-tech innovation and entrepreneurship that in recent years has spilled over into the space industry.
Startups leveraging rapidly advancing small-satellite technology are attracting well-heeled Silicon Valley investors ranging from venture capital outfits all the way up to Google. In perhaps the most notable, satellite imaging venture Skybox Imaging is being purchased by the search engine giant for the eye-watering sum of $500 million.
Ames is both a driver and beneficiary of the revolution. The center’s director, retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Simon “Pete” Worden, has pushed small-satellite technology at Ames just as he did during his Air Force career, and has sought to tap the deep talent pool in the surrounding region to that end.
But the Silicon Valley location can be a double-edged sword in that regard, says Bruce Yost, whose job is to develop small-satellite technology in support of Ames’ mission. When the tech sector gets hot, as it is now, companies have an easier time luring away NASA engineers, he says.
Yost traces his path to NASA back to 1981 when, as a student at the University of California at Davis, he happened upon a group of fellow students gathered around a television, watching the first NASA space shuttle mission land at Edwards Air Force Base near Los Angeles. He joined them and noticed his father, a physiologist at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center, which is co-located at Edwards, among the doctors checking the health of the returning shuttle crew.
“That was it,” Yost said. “That was the thing that focused me on space, that image of my father on TV.”
After that, Yost got an internship at Dryden, which has since been renamed Armstrong Flight Research Center, assisting with astronaut preflight and postflight medical research. When he completed college with a bachelor’s degree in genetics, Yost worked in payload processing and experiment support at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida before moving to NASA headquarters in Washington, where he served as a systems engineering and technical assistance contractor on Spacelab, the space shuttle’s reusable laboratory.
In 1995, Yost returned to California to work at Ames, where he remains. Until recently, he was program manager for NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program, an initiative to develop and demonstrate the use of small satellites for space agency missions. In June, Yost took on a new job, helping Roger Hunter, former Kepler mission project manager, establish the NASA Ames Small Satellite Integrated Product Team.
Yost spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.
What is the Small Satellite Integrated Product Team?
We plan to redouble our efforts here at NASA Ames to influence and take advantage of small-satellite activity. By Pete Worden’s definition, a small satellite is the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer or anything smaller. We have a lot of key skills and capabilities, but we need to organize them. We will establish partnerships with other government agencies, universities and companies to ensure that NASA can identify, ingest and apply small-satellite technology to missions.
How is your job changing?
I’m transitioning from a program management function for small satellites for the agency into a similar function for the center.
When did you first become interested in small satellites?
When I came to Ames, the space station was being assembled. Shuttle missions had very little room for anything other than space station parts. So the group I was in, which was focused on biomedical research in space, looked for other ways to fly experiments. At the same time, some local universities were developing cubesats as a way to train and engage students in engineering and science. It dawned on us that the types of technology we wanted to fly could be miniaturized to be compatible with these small spacecraft.
That led to the 2006 GeneSat-1 mission, NASA’s first cubesat?
Yes. We didn’t know how to launch it or how to communicate with it. We had to figure all that out and make sure our science objectives would be met. Once we did, it encouraged other people to develop cubesats. They thought that if NASA considers cubesats valuable, they must be.
What is their value?
Space is no longer only for multibillion-dollar projects or engineers with Ph.D.s who have worked for 10 or 20 years in a government agency. Undergraduate students and some high schools are building spacecraft and learning from them. People no longer wait 10 to 15 years to see the results of space-based research; they wait 10 to 15 months, which is really incredible. It has allowed a lot of new players to join the space community, which gives us access to more great ideas and more skilled workers.
What is the status of PhoneSat, the program that launches satellites that incorporate commercial smartphone electronics?
We’ve launched five PhoneSats to date on three different launches. One was deployed from the space station. Since space station is in a relatively low orbit, it has re-entered the atmosphere.
We are interested in pursuing PhoneSat as a generic platform to test different types of technologies. The short duration afforded by a space station launch might be enough to get the data we need from subsystems.
What types of subsystems?
Things like very small propulsion systems for cubesats, star trackers, communication systems and reaction wheels for control. Cubesats are excellent communication platforms for different radio types or even optical laser communications.
Tell me about NASA’s planned Edison Demonstration of Smallsat Networks.
We asked ourselves, “What can you do with a number of distributed function pieces as opposed to one large satellite?” You’re not going to replicate the Hubble Space Telescope, but there are things swarms can do that a large instrument can’t do. To explore those types of missions, we have to figure out how the spacecraft operate and communicate with each other. We plan to fly eight cubesats now. What if we wanted to fly 80 or 800? How would we manage that?
What types of missions could swarms of satellites accomplish?
If you have one sensor on one spacecraft you are going to make measurements as that spacecraft flies. If we have a number of spacecraft, we could collect data simultaneously from different points. That is relevant to disciplines like heliophysics, where you have large phenomena happening at different times and at different locations. Think of a network of nodes swarming around Mars, relaying information from the ground and from other spacecraft.
How would you use cubesats on other planets?
You could take a bunch of cubesats with decelerators on them and sprinkle them over the surface of Mars, letting them fall where they will. Now you’ve got a mesh, sitting on the surface, sniffing, listening, checking temperatures and talking to small satellites in orbit. You’ve done in months for millions of dollars what would have taken years and billions with larger spacecraft. It’s not a replacement for a rover.
Do you have enough launch options for small satellites?
Yes. We used to worry about launch. I’m not saying launch is never a problem, but we have other areas and problems to address.
How do you manage a large number of spacecraft from universities, NASA and companies? How does the ground infrastructure support that? Can you just copy and paste procedures from larger traditional programs and missions? I don’t think you can.
Because it would be too manpower intensive?
Yes. And those programs also rely on expensive assets. I’m interested in trying to encourage a cubesat ground segment that is organic. Anyone can come in and come out. How can we keep the cost and complexity down so we can advance our technologies and move forward?
Do you need new software for some of the things you’re trying to accomplish?
We still have to learn how to develop software. A phone processor is very capable. The question is, how do you develop and test software without spending millions of dollars? We are trying to understand how to reuse software, how to autocode and what standards we should embrace. It’s very exciting because it opens the door not just to new ways to build spacecraft but also to manage and organize missions.
Is it hard to keep nearby companies from luring away your employees?
Here at the center, we have boom and bust times. When local industry is booming, like right now, it’s tough. We are doing cool stuff, but so are all the companies across the street. When it gets a little rough in [Silicon] Valley we see folks coming to the center to find work.
Is it hard to keep up with the rapid pace of technological change?
Yes. I call it the Silicon Valley cycle. You have to run to keep on top of things. It’s a challenge to keep current with all the developments being pushed within the space community and outside in the electronics industry. We can’t find the old phones we flew in PhoneSat in 2013. They’re not for sale anymore. You have to buy the next generation.
How is the next generation different?
Maybe the software is a little bit different so you have to reintegrate everything. That’s a downside, if there is such a thing, in using commercial products. We leverage billions of dollars of investment by that industry, but it’s not static. It’s constantly changing. Which is good. It pushes us forward.