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Thinking small in space could pay off big for Florida

A replica of the suit worn by Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell is on display at the Kennedy Space Center. Forty years ago, the crew made it back to Earth after an equipment failure.


A replica of the suit worn by Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell is on display at the Kennedy Space Center. Forty years ago, the crew made it back to Earth after an equipment failure.

Forty years ago late Tuesday night, the astronauts aboard a stricken Apollo 13 famously reported, "Houston, we have a problem." • Though it is not a life-or-death situation, Florida's space industry today faces a quandary that is every bit as much about survival.

The Constellation human flight program has been canceled and the space shuttle is due to be retired. Thousands of Space Coast workers could lose their jobs. With President Barack Obama set to visit NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, the fate of Florida's decades-old space industry, once a great source of pride and innovation, looks uncertain.

Believing that failure was not an option, the Apollo flight director concentrated his engineers' minds on the critical task at hand. And the astronauts, with full support at Mission Control, quickly worked out a creative solution that brought them safely home. In the same way, Florida today has a unique opportunity innovate its way out of the current crisis and not just survive, but thrive.

When it comes to space, we have always succeeded by thinking big — big rockets, a big shuttle program, big satellites. But our future rests in the small — specifically, small satellites.

Small satellites represent a transformational new technology that has great potential to increase Florida's share of the global space market. Small satellites are 2-pound to several-hundred-pound spacecraft made possible by today's miniaturized technologies.

Just as today's memory sticks hold as much memory as the room-sized computers of yesterday, these tiny satellites are increasingly able to perform on the level of traditional large spacecraft. However, whereas traditional satellites cost hundreds of millions to billions of dollars and can take 10 years to build, small satellites may cost as little as hundreds of thousands of dollars and require just a few months to build. In addition, a single launch vehicle can place a number of small satellites into orbit, further reducing the total cost.

The use of small satellites opens up new opportunities for scientific, commercial and military applications with flexibility unmatched by traditional spacecraft. The satellites are anticipated to play a major role in communications, missile launch warning systems and remote sensing within this decade.

Before small satellites can realize their full potential, several innovative technologies must be developed and fully tested. These include miniaturized orientation-control systems that would allow these satellites to point to a remote location, and small but powerful imaging devices to view the location. Most importantly, new technologies are required to enable the satellites to operate in "clusters."

That is because the true power of small satellites resides in their ability to work as a team, each performing one or more functions, together equaling or exceeding the capability of a traditional large satellite. Clusters of small satellites will also greatly reduce mission risk. When one small satellite fails, the remaining satellites in the cluster can continue operating. The failed small satellite can also be replaced at much lower cost and far more quickly than an entire large satellite.

Although California and Virginia are eyeing the potential of this technology, neither state has sought aggressively to become ground zero for small satellite development and manufacture. Florida is ideally suited to take over this market.

First, several universities and research centers throughout the state are already leading the research and development of the technologies required to validate the key role of small satellites in the future of space missions.

Second, the Space Coast has the most talented and highly trained space work force in the United States — an absolute essential for the large-scale manufacture and commercialization of hundreds of small satellites per year — and the premier facilities in the country to launch spacecraft.

Third, the current crisis has greatly motivated the state government and space agencies to work aggressively to expand Florida's global space market share and increase the number of space-related jobs throughout the state.

Obama has a lot of ground to cover Thursday. But he has already encouraged new ideas by assigning $1.2 billion in this year's federal budget "for transformative research in exploration technology that will involve NASA, private industry, and academia, sparking spin-off technologies and potentially entire new industries."

Small satellites fit the bill. To win the small satellite race, it is essential that universities, industry and government agencies align with a common goal: to make Florida the global leader in the development, manufacture and launch of this transformational new technology.

Peggy L. Evanich is an aerospace engineer at the University of Florida. Rafael Guzman is professor and chairman of the UF Department of Astronomy.

Thinking small in space could pay off big for Florida 04/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 6:14pm]
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