WASHINGTON — Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) lost its biggest single source of revenue in May when it shipped off a telescope built for a NASA astronomy mission, but the nonprofit research corporation is still projecting steady revenue growth next year. SDL, based in North Logan, Utah, hopes to more than make up for the closing revenue stream with several new ventures, including the creation of a for-profit company to sell thermal management hardware and a business partnership with an orbital analysis software company, Douglas Lemon, the laboratory’s director, said in an interview. With NASA’s increasing focus on Earth observation missions, the lab is also hoping its expertise in infrared sensors will help it land some major instrument contracts in coming years, he said.
The lab was tapped by NASA in 2004 to build the super-cooled instrument for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) astronomy mission, which will map the entire sky in four near-infrared bands in search of cool and dim stars, asteroids and far-away galaxies. Following integration with a spacecraft platform built by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of
Boulder, Colo., the instrument will be launched in November into low Earth orbit by a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket.
The WISE instrument brought in around $8 million to SDL this year, several times more than any other program currently in the lab’s $50 million portfolio, Lemon said. Projections for the lab’s upcoming fiscal year that begins in July estimate another couple million dollars in growth.
Lemon took the reins at SDL 10 months ago, some 30 years after he worked at the lab as a Utah State University student. He spent most of the time in between working at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state, most recently as strategy director.
SDL recently completed a six-month reassessment of its vision, mission and strategy. The most significant change that will result is an increased focus on innovation, Lemon said. In addition to continuing to pursue opportunities to build, test and calibrate government space systems, the lab will double its annual investment in internal research and development in what it believes to be key technologies for the future. The lab has identified seven or eight such technologies, such as hyperspectral sensors, and by July it will decide which ones to pursue, he said.
SDL will pay for these research and development initiatives in part with money brought in through a partnership with Analytical Graphics Inc. of
Exton, Pa., which specializes in orbital modeling and visualization software. The lab is contributing its sensor modeling capabilities to the company’s STK Professional edition software to be released this fall. Aimed at exploiting tactical imagery, the software will help users best configure the sensors that are available, or determine what sensors are needed, to achieve a desired result, Lemon said. SDL will receive a percentage of each sale of the software, he said.
“We are excited to offer SDL’s expertise in electro-optical sensor modeling to our user community who needs these capabilities for missile defense and space situational awareness applications,” Peter Aves, AGI director of partners and alliances, said in a March 30 press release.
SDL also is counting on revenue from a commercial spin-off called Thermal Management Technologies, which signed an agreement in January to use the lab’s intellectual property. Thermal Management Technologies will sell heat management components for spacecraft to commercial and government customers.
For about the last 10 years, SDL’s portfolio has been made up of many small programs for many government agencies. Lemon seeks to return to the lab’s legacy of working on mostly just a handful of major space programs at a time. NASA has begun to ramp up its spending on Earth science missions, and SDL has its eye on several infrared missions proposed in the National Research Council’s decadal survey. NASA is now developing its strategy for a remote sensing mission called the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory and may hold a competition to build the satellite and sensor about a year from now, Lemon said. The lab also has its eye on two missions that could win approval soon: one called Geostationary Coastal and Air Pollution Events; the other dubbed Active Sensing of Carbon Dioxide Emissions over Nights, Days, and Seasons.