Spotlight: Silicon Valley Space Center

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Silicon Valley Space Center at a Glance

Established: Feb. 14, 2011

Mission: To integrate the innovative and entrepreneurial practices of Silicon Valley into the burgeoning NewSpace industry. This includes practices for business acceleration, incubation and angel level funding.

Top Officials: Sean Casey and Periklis Papadopoulos, co-founders

Location: Mountain View and Mojave, Calif.

SAN FRANCISCO — In Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs and computer programmers can strike it rich working for social networking companies, a group of aerospace enthusiasts is trying to convince young people that exciting opportunities can be found in the fledgling commercial space industry, often referred to as NewSpace.

“Silicon Valley needs to be engaged in the NewSpace economy,” said Sean Casey, a senior scientist with the Universities Space Research Association’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) program and a co-founder of the Silicon Valley Space Center (SVSC). “The technological engine is here. The money is here. We simply need to raise awareness.”

With that goal in mind, Casey and Periklis Papadopoulos, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at San Jose State University, founded SVSC. Silicon Valley professionals have been generous with their time and expertise, volunteering in the classroom and mentoring students, Papadopoulos said. “It just made sense to bring the community together to form a grassroots, Silicon Valley effort to make things happen in the commercial space industry,” he said.

Although SVSC was established in 2011, the idea for the organization began to percolate in 2010, when Casey and Papadopoulos were working with a group of aerospace and software engineers in support of a group seeking NASA funding to develop a commercial mission to the Moon. That group, known as Team FredNet, includes scientists and engineers around the world seeking to develop an open source solution to the problem of designing a commercial lunar mission.

The Silicon Valley group succeeded in helping Team FredNet obtain one of six coveted spots in NASA’s Innovative Lunar Data Demonstration program, a space agency campaign to buy detailed data on commercial lunar vehicles and missions. “Our success in working with this group in Silicon Valley inspired us to think in broader terms about entrepreneurial opportunities,” Casey said.

During its first year of operations, SVSC has attracted about 24 members, who pay $100 a year or $20 for students, working to establish space-related businesses. Members are encouraged to think beyond rockets and satellites to identify any hardware, software or services commercial space ventures will need. “We want entrepreneurs to inject themselves into the supply chain,” Casey said.

One SVSC member trying to do that is Dr. Ravi Komatireddy, a resident in internal medicine at the University of California, San Diego, and scholar on wireless medical technology at the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, Calif. Komatireddy hopes to establish a company to provide equipment and expertise to monitor the vital signs of passengers traveling on suborbital flights and, eventually, on commercial orbital spacecraft.

“There is a revolution in digital medicine,” Komatireddy said. “How do we apply that to space?”

In addition, spaceflight testing may offer applications for terrestrial applications.

“Our goal is to capture human performance on this cohort of people going on suborbital and orbital flights,” Komatireddy said. “We will take what we learn and see if there are applications for clinical medicine.”

Komatireddy plans to conduct his first test of a wireless medical device in microgravity in May on a Zero-G Corp. commercial parabolic flight. NASA announced in October that Komatireddy’s experiment was one of nine technologies selected for NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, an effort to support the suborbital launch industry with demonstrations of advanced technologies. Komatireddy and Matt Banet, president and chief scientific officer of San Diego-based Sotera Wireless, plan to demonstrate technologies for gathering health-related data onboard the Zero-G flight.

Komatireddy said that by working with SVSC he hopes to obtain guidance, wisdom and expertise from aerospace professionals. “Our vision is to be the first incubated organization to come out of Silicon Valley Space Center,” Komatireddy said.

One of those experienced professionals is Casey. Casey joined the SOFIA program in 1997 to shepherd the mission’s 2.5-meter infrared telescope through its integration on the aircraft that carries it, a modified Boeing 747SP. Prior to that, Casey worked for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., developing astronomical instruments for NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory. “These suborbital vehicles are the next set of platforms for conducting astronomical observations,” Casey said.

Casey also was selected to participate in NASA’s Flight Opportunities program. Next summer, he plans to send a near-infrared spectrometer on a suborbital vehicle to measure atmospheric background in the mesosphere. The project is designed to pave the way for future observations from suborbital launch vehicles, he said.

Although NASA has not yet informed Casey which vehicle will carry his experiment, if he had his choice, the spectrometer would fly on Masten Space System’s reusable Xaero vertical takeoff and landing vehicle. Because Masten plans to conduct suborbital research flights without passengers, the company can focus on satisfying experimental criteria, Casey said. It also means less paperwork for scientists who participate, he added.

The Silicon Valley Space Center conducts monthly meetings at Hacker Dojo, a facility in Mountain View, Calif., with space for speakers, cooperative computer programming activities and social interaction. Instead of renting out a facility of its own, SVSC makes the Hacker Dojo its headquarters. In June, SVSC plans to offer a workshop on developing small payloads.

Papadopoulos is using a NASA-funded Small Business Innovative Research Grant to develop techniques to measure the distance between small satellites. The research is designed to enable formation flying of cubesats, the miniature satellites that measure 10 centimeters per side.

Papadopoulos also has reserved for SVSC members two of the 50 cubesats destined for QB50, an international initiative led by the von Karman Institute for Fluid Dynamics in Belgium to establish a network of small satellites to study the lower thermosphere.