SAN FRANCISCO — The launch of Kentucky’s first satellite, which is scheduled to travel into orbit in November with NASA’s Glory climate monitoring spacecraft, will mark an important milestone for Kentucky Space, a nonprofit consortium of universities and public and private organizations based in Lexington.
Since it was founded in 2006, Kentucky Space has been working to carve a niche for itself as a leader in the development of CubeSats, the miniature satellites that measure 10 centimeters on all sides and weigh 1 kilogram or less. “We have been building up capacity and the intellectual infrastructure to be able to design, develop and operate small, entrepreneurial, high-value spacecraft,” said Kris Kimel, Kentucky Space founder and chairman.
That infrastructure includes a CubeSat engineering facility at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, collateral and ground operations at Morehead State University in Morehead, Ky., and additional support from professors and students at the University of Louisville in Louisville, Ky. By relying on academic institutions for much of the CubeSat design, development and ground support, Kentucky Space is able to produce small satellites quickly and inexpensively, Kimel said.
Kentucky Space operates on an annual budget of between $750,000 and $1 million. That figure represents the contributions made by consortium partners in cash, facilities and personnel. While students working on Kentucky Space projects are paid a stipend, their wages are far lower than salaries would be outside the academic arena. That helps keep costs down and supports Kentucky Space’s overarching goal of building an organization capable of attracting enough funding to cover its costs. “We are developing the intellectual capacity, products and services that people in the private sector are willing to pay for,” Kimel said. “This model is designed to generate revenue.”
One near-term project designed to bring in revenue is the partnership Kentucky Space established last year with NanoRacks LLC, a Houston-based startup that is shepherding small experiments to the international space station under a Space Act Agreement with NASA. NanoRacks developed a platform to offer power and data transfer through a standard USB port for CubeLabs, which are CubeSat-size experiments housed in the Express Rack, the standard payload architecture for space station experiments. The first NanoRack was activated July 12 by astronaut Shannon Walker. Kentucky Space manages the integration of the CubeLabs and oversees mission control for payload operations at the University of Kentucky.
Kentucky Space also is helping NanoRacks market the CubeLabs. The standard price for transportation to the space station and 30 days’ worth of daily data results is $25,000 for students and $50,000 for U.S. commercial customers, said Jeffrey Manber, NanoRacks managing director. “This could be of interest not only to students but also to a multibillion-dollar company interested in testing a new idea without breaking the bank.”
In addition to acting as a strategic partner for NanoRacks, Kentucky Space was the first CubeLab customer, opting to use its first experiment to thoroughly investigate the internal environment of the station. Future experiments, however, are likely to focus on medical and biological research. In January, Kentucky Space announced plans for an extensive effort to pursue research in exomedicine, or the study of disease mitigation and human health enhancement in space. For many years, space agencies have studied the harmful effects of microgravity on human beings. “We want to learn how microgravity could be employed to benefit people,” Kimel said. He asked, for example, whether the study of cancer cells developing in microgravity might offer scientists new insight or lead to new treatment options.
Kentucky Space also is preparing a significant expansion of its CubeSat program, with plans to launch at least one of the microsatellites into orbit annually beginning with KySat-1, the satellite scheduled to blast off with Glory Nov. 22, Kimel said.
That goal is certainly achievable, according to Bob Twiggs, one of the inventors of the CubeSat who is now a professor at Morehead State University’s Space Science Center. “We have a number of programs going on,” he said. In fact, Twiggs said, Morehead State alone might be launching at least one CubeSat a year. “The program has just taken off,” he added.
When NASA launches KySat-1 as part of its Education Launch of Nanosatellites initiative, it will also be flying CubeSats built by Montana State University in Bozeman and the University of Colorado in Boulder as auxiliary payloads on the Taurus XL rocket.
KySat-1 is equipped with a camera as part of an educational outreach initiative as well as a 2.4 gigahertz radio designed to test high-bandwidth communications in the license-free portion of the S-band.
In addition to the University of Kentucky, Morehead State and the University of Louisville, the Kentucky Space consortium includes Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Ky., Murray State University in Murray, Ky., the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, the Kentucky Space Grant Consortium and Belcan Corp., an engineering and technical services company based in Cincinnati.