WASHINGTON — Space industry officials agree that the next generation of engineers and scientists need hands-on opportunities to build and test small satellites. The challenge is getting those student-built satellites launched.
This year, 50 student payloads will make orbital or suborbital flights, down from 270 in 1970 when many of today’s engineers and scientists were in training, said Kevin Schmadel, vice president of government relations with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in Columbia, Md.
“Most graduate students never have the opportunity to do hands-on science with respect to space. They analyze data from instruments they may or may not have ever seen,” Schmadel said. “The bulk of the 50 scheduled for this year are suborbital and includes even opportunities to do hands-on work on instruments that go into telescopes.”
The association pressed Congress and NASA this year to dedicate 1 percent of NASA’s budget to developing opportunities for sounding rockets, high-altitude balloons, remotely piloted vehicles and emerging commercial suborbital flights to give students more opportunities for hands-on experience. The Senate and House authorization bills for NASA both include language supporting increased investment in small, suborbital missions that involve hands-on training. It is now up to congressional appropriators to approve the budget for it.
In July, NASA reissued a call for proposals for up to eight concept studies for human-tended suborbital experiments aboard reusable spaceships now under development. The first call for proposals received little response; this time around NASA will pay a total of up to $400,000 for the eight one-year studies.
Access to space is a stumbling block for launching small, university-built payloads. USRA estimates launch and infrastructure costs involved with each research payload are $2 million. In addition, the average research payload for sounding rockets is between $200,000 and $2.5 million, with the average cost hovering at about $1 million, Schmadel said. A high altitude balloon research payload costs between $50,000 and $1 million, he said.
With severely limited room on the space shuttle and no affordable commercial launch options on line in the United States yet, students are left with few options such as taking their projects overseas. Launching from foreign soil entails expensive travel and also requires compliance with the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for students to use foreign launchers to test new satellite technologies.
“I think it’s a killer to have to go to Kazakhstan, and now even to India, to get student payloads launched,” said Gil Moore, who has retired from industry and academia several times but actively pursues avenues for launching student payloads.
Moore has made several appeals to large launch operators such as of Denver, which operates the Atlas and rockets, to allow small university-led payloads to fill excess space.
“Every Atlas 5 or Delta 4 or 2 has surplus capacity available,” he said. “They always put in surplus fuel because [payload] weights change up to the last minute. So we’re trying to say, ‘Look, you’ve already got the launch paid for,’ and we’re beginning to get the ear of the top people.”
Universities and their advocates also must convince the U.S. government that student-built satellites will not interfere with expensive, sensitive military satellites that are primary payloads on Atlas and Delta.
Dennis Wingo, founder of aerospace engineering firm SkyCorp of Huntville, Ala., said the decision to allow small satellites to share space on an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) must come from top military commanders.
“It’s just an unfortunate fact that the EELVs don’t want to deal with it, and unless the military directs them to fly small payloads they’re just not going to do it,” he said.
The U.S. military is contributing to the student-led development of small satellites through the University Nanosat Program. Every two years, 12 to 15 universities are awarded $100,000 to develop a prototype that must have a military application. After multiple reviews, a panel of judges, which includes Moore, selects one satellite for further review by the Air Force and Defense Department Space Experiments Review Board.
Once approved, the satellite must await space, typically on a Delta 4 or Atlas 5 EELV Secondary Payload Adapter, or ESPA, ring. The rings provide capacity for as many as six secondary payloads of up to 180 kilograms each. The university payloads compete with other small military satellites for space aboard the rocket, Moore said.
“It’s a good program, if you could multiply it by 10 it would be a darn good program,” he said. “A big problem is they aren’t getting a chance to fly even after they’ve been selected.”
Military academies have better luck getting their student payloads launched than other universities, Moore said.
University scientists also are hoping for commercial suborbital services from systems being developed by fledgling launch companies like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, both of Mojave, Calif., Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas, and Blue Origin of Kent, Wash.
“These new vehicles will provide low-cost access to the space environment for scientific experiments and research,” USRA President Frederick Tarantino told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation space aeronautics and related sciences subcommittee May 7. “The market rate for these services has already been set by the space tourist market at $100,000 to $200,000 per seat, a much lower cost than existing sounding rockets.”
An orbital launch vehicle that has been in the development stage for years is Microcosm Inc.’s Sprite. After years of struggling to finance the Sprite, the company has a contract with the U.S. Air Force that will help move the project from preliminary reviews to design reviews, said Bob Conger, executive vice president of Hawthorne, Calif.-based Microcosm. Conger hopes the Sprite, which he said can lift 450 kilograms to low Earth orbit, will become part of the solution for university payloads seeking launch space.
“Everyone in the world is looking for low-cost access to space and basically there’s just not much around,” he said. “We want, and the country needs, to work toward enabling students to launch, test, explore, validate and invigorate a new generation of engineers and scientists. We have to find a way.”