Profile | Niel Holt, Director, Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory

by

Every year, small-satellite developers and component suppliers travel from around the world to Logan, Utah, home of Utah State University and the Small Satellite conference, the world’s largest on the subject. Logan is also home to the Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL), a nonprofit research corporation and wholly owned subsidiary of Utah State. SDL does not manage or plan the conference but serves as a sponsor and participant.

Small-satellite technology and research are one important aspect of the work conducted at SDL. In 2011, the organization launched the Dynamic Ionosphere Cubesat Experiment, a mission funded by the National Science Foundation to use twin satellites to gather data on geomagnetic storms. SDL also offers customers the ability to test small satellites in its Nano-Satellite Operation Verification and Assessment testing facility, a roughly 50-square-meter room designed for prelaunch testing of components and complete satellites weighing 10 kilograms or less.

In addition to its small-satellite work, SDL focuses on: instruments and payloads for larger spacecraft; instrument calibration; thermal management of space-based sensors; upper-atmosphere studies; sensor system modeling and simulation; data handling, compression and analysis; ground stations and data exploitation; systems engineering; and testing.

In recent years, Utah State and SDL have established partnerships with commercial companies seeking to obtain detailed data from space-based sensors that could be used in weather forecasting. With funding from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, SDL developed the Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer (GIFTS), a hyperspectral sounder designed to provide detailed information on atmospheric water vapor, wind and pollution. The sounder originally was scheduled to fly on NOAA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R but was dropped from that program in 2006 due to the rising cost of the overall effort.

Niel Holt joined SDL in 1989 after earning an electrical engineering degree from Utah State. Initially, he worked on image and data compression for the Spatial Infrared Imaging Telescope 3, the primary sensor on the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Midcourse Space Experiment, a satellite designed to study the signature characteristics of ballistic missiles in flight. The Spatial Infrared Imaging Telescope 3 and similar projects led SDL to its early tactical reconnaissance work and eventually to establish its C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) Systems Division, which Holt led before becoming SDL director in 2009.

SDL’s expertise in tactical sensors and equipment now is leading to research and technology for the organization’s space-related work, particularly in the area of cubesats and other small satellites that require compact sensors and ground stations.

SDL is one of the U.S. Defense Department’s University Affiliated Research Centers. It was established in 1982 by the merger of the Upper Air Research Laboratory, housed initially at the University of Utah, where it was formed in the wake of World War II to support some of the nation’s earliest space experiments, but moved to Utah State in 1970; and Utah State’s Electro-Dynamics Laboratory, an organization focused primarily on optical and infrared aerospace research. SDL employs 361 people, including 82 undergraduate and graduate students, at its headquarters in Logan and field offices in Alabama, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Texas and Washington.

Holt spoke recently with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner.

 

How has the Space Dynamics Lab changed in the last 25 years?

When I stepped in, we were just getting away from the small rockets and small sensors. We began to produce very large sensors like the Midcourse Space Experiment’s Spatial Infrared Imaging Telescope 3. Now we are producing smaller sensors once again.

 

What is the relationship between Utah State University and SDL?

The Utah State University Research Foundation is wholly owned by Utah State University. SDL is part of the Utah State University Research Foundation. The research foundation has a separate board of trustees.

 

Is SDL growing?

Yes. We’ve been very fortunate. Even through the recent budget challenges, sequestration and all of those things, we have continued to grow.

 

Why do you think that is?

The government is flocking to value. If we can provide that value we will continue to be provided with opportunities. Value does not simply mean cost. It is a question of whether an agency can get what it needs at an affordable price.

 

So frozen or declining budgets have helped SDL?

They seem to have helped in the last few years. Customers demand more for the same amount or less money than before and that means technology has to take a leap. That’s what’s exciting about this whole thing.

 

SDL was teamed with the commercial company GeoMetWatch to design weather sensors. Then early this year that relationship ended and SDL began working with Tempus Global Data to find commercial applications for the Sounding and Tracking Observatory for Regional Meteorology, based on GIFTS. What happened?

SDL is interested in having our advanced technology used to benefit mankind. Commercializing the technology is one method of having the technology used to benefit a greater population. As is the case with the GIFTS technology originally designed and built by SDL, we continue to work through Utah State University as they work with Tempus Global Data to commercialize this high-quality weather sensing technology. SDL expects to support Utah State University by providing technical expertise, sensor components and calibration to the Utah State University and Tempus Global Data venture.

 

Are you looking for other opportunities to sell weather sensor technology to commercial customers?

As the government budgets have been a challenge, we have continued to look for ways to diversify our customer base or find other opportunities. Some of those opportunities may be with industry. Most of the time, we develop opportunities internally. That approach helps us grow, helps our technology grow and helps our sensors improve. We have not spun out a commercial organization. If and when it makes sense, we will look for opportunities to spin technology out.

 

Do you think NOAA is likely to expand its reliance on commercial firms for weather data?

I think NOAA is trying to find new and innovative ways to solve problems. I don’t know if that will be a commercial solution or something else, but we would love to have an opportunity to provide some of those sensors.

 

At the Small Satellite conference, people discussed plans for constellations with various types of sensors to capture different types of data, such as multispectral sensors for agriculture monitoring. Would SDL produce that type of sensor?

There is a lot of commercial interest and passion about new and different applications for different types of imagers. Our core competency is around sensors and sensor systems. We work anywhere in the information chain, from the sensor through the transmission of data, data processing and dissemination on the ground.

We are simply looking for new technology and new sensors. We look around for customer needs and when we find those needs, whether it be farming and a multispectral sensor or a military application and a hyperspectral sensor, we want to provide that sensor and we want to be in that information chain, providing value to our customers.

 

In 2011, SDL launched Dynamic Ionosphere Cubesat Experiment (DICE). What’s important about that project?

DICE is characterizing the ionosphere and how it effects communications. We have heritage on campus at Utah State University as well as SDL in doing space weather. That is an area in which we continue to grow and expand. It’s a good example of our student involvement.

 

How so?

The principal investigator was a professor on campus and we have professional engineers working side by side with a number of students. Students helped design, assemble and test those cubesats, which showed some major leaps forward in technology.

 

What new technology?

We had to have a fairly wideband link for a cubesat to get the data down. We partnered with L-3 Communications and put a new radio in there that revolutionized communications for cubesats because it was geared specifically for that job. That helped shape DICE and define where we go on this area.

 

What is unique about your Nano-Satellite Operation Verification and Assessment testing facility?

Satellite testing facilities usually are very large, a couple of acres or larger. We built a miniature version, without the vacuum chamber, to test not only satellite components but entire cubesats. It allows us to test solar arrays and measure a satellite’s center of mass. It includes a Helmholtz cage to provide the type of uniform magnetic field a satellite would experience in orbit. We’ve tested several of our own satellites there and satellites for customers as well.

 

SDL’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer launched in 2009 and began performing a second mission in 2011 when its hydrogen coolant ran out. With its ability to capture imagery in two of its four original spectral bands, the instrument conducted a four-month survey of near-Earth objects. Is that program continuing?

We had great partnerships for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer and Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory led the mission and Ball Aerospace built the satellite bus. Scientists were extremely happy with the quality and clarity of the imagery. They found objects they are excited about. They continue to mine that data and to make discoveries. We are looking for opportunities to participate with team members to continue those efforts.