Wayne HallMar 16, 2017

Postcard from Kentucky: Space in the Bluegrass State

For many folks, the phrase “Kentucky Space” may come as a surprise. 

After all, the state lies in the heart of Appalachia, a region of the United States known better for mountains, music and coal mining than science and technology.

Actually, Kentucky has a storied sci-tech history. I know the state as a place where settlers built kilns and furnaces, and chemists used an ample resource, corn, to develop a new whiskey called bourbon. Nineteenth Century masons labored over ancient sea beds in the center of the state to pry limestone from the ground, and laid hundreds of miles of stone fences held together solely by gravity. 

Today in the Commonwealth, some very driven people are writing their own chapter of space exploration based on vision, entrepreneurial risk, and scientific and engineering know-how. Let me share with you their stories and a secret.

Kentucky Space: one tiny spacecraft and a big idea

The non-profit Kentucky Space was created in 2006 after an encounter between Bob Twiggs, head of the Space Systems Development Lab at Stanford University, and Kris Kimel, president of the Lexington-based Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation. Kimel was attracted to the idea that a CubeSat, a four-by-four-inch spacecraft, could be a relatively inexpensive way to get to space while expanding STEM opportunities and building a new industry. Space, he rightly observed, was no longer the sole domain of nations.

Space exploration is a highly interdisciplinary project. Embedded software and radio choices must be made and harmonized into a self-reporting device traveling at roughly 17,500 miles per hour. Good systems engineering is crucial, as are professional relationships and people skills.

Kentucky Space soon developed a “single-unit” (one four-by-four-inch module) CubeSat named KySat, pieces of which, sadly, lie somewhere at the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean because of the failure of a launch vehicle faring to separate.

Crucially, the organization negotiated a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement with NASA, which meant that Kentucky Space could be included on the manifest of any NASA partner going to orbit. That foresight has proven useful.

It also lured Bob Twiggs to teach at Kentucky’s Morehead State University, where he has instructed students—predominantly drawn from Kentucky—in the science of spaceflight.

Space Tango: ISS research as a service

Speaking at a meeting hosted by Kentucky Space several years ago, Julie Robinson, NASA’s program scientist for the International Space Station, said that for the first time in history, experimenters could control for gravity.

We know that human cells and genes behave and express themselves differently in zero-G. Providing fast, iterative, reasonably priced research aboard the ISS National Laboratory might offer scientists new insights into disease pathologies on Earth. That was the idea behind Space Tango, a for-profit spin-off of Kentucky Space now working to offer real-time, secure, browser-based data for investigators. Think of it a space-as-a-service.      

Space Tango CEO Twyman Clements, a University of Kentucky mechanical engineering graduate, was incidentally one of the first two Kentucky Space hires and guided work on KySat-2, which flew successfully in 2013. Clements and the Space Tango team recently returned from the Kennedy Space Center and the company’s Florida office in the Space Life Science Lab, having attended the historic SpaceX launch from pad 39A. Space Tango’s work was aboard that ISS commercial resupply mission, or CRS-10.

Flatworms and a blood glucose experiment to test sensor technology are scheduled for CRS-11. And on CRS-12, there will be a wide variety of experiments, including cell culture and pilot manufacturing on orbit, as well as TangoLab, which will feature improved airflow and networking. The immediate goal is to identify use cases that can scale. The company, according to Clements, is looking toward a post-ISS future.

To complement frequent trips to low-Earth orbit and back, the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation has created the Exomedicine Institute, which has carried out an extensive study of the available literature on microgravity and human health.

Could the next breakthrough in human health happen in space?

Lunar IceCube
Lunar IceCube Image: Ben Malphrus and Michael Combs, Morehead State University

Morehead State University: Deep space dishes, lunar CubeSats and more 

Morehead State University is a special place. Located in the Daniel Boone National forest, it is home to an impressive new Space Science Center. A school bus-size anechoic chamber, clean rooms, shaker tables, a faraday cage, milling and 3D printing facilities are available and in demand. On a recent visit, flat-sats dotted tables behind glass walls. A forested mountain peak less than a mile away boasts an impressive 21-meter steerable antenna.

The university offers one of only five undergraduate space science degrees in the United States, combining the theoretical and applied into one hands-on program attracting attention for the quality of its product.  

That work includes the recent delivery of a second version of Morehead’s Cosmic X-ray Background Nanosatellite, or CXBN-2. Currently scheduled for a March 19 launch, this two-unit CubeSat will study the Extragalactic Diffuse X-Ray Background, which is poorly understood thanks to existing measurements that vary by more than 20 percent. Morehead investigators believe the diminutive spacecraft will help constrain the current physical model and make a contribution to cosmology. 

Working as the lead with partners at the Busek Company, Goddard, JPL and Vermont Technical College, the university is also building a Wheaties box-sized lunar orbiter called Lunar IceCube, a six-unit CubeSat that will prospect for lunar volatiles and water from an altitude of 62 miles. The craft will use an infrared spectrometer developed at Goddard, a larger version which is aboard New Horizons.  

NASA’s Space Launch System will deploy Lunar IceCube at the first of nine planned “bus stops” along the way to the moon in 2018. The tiny lunar explorer will trail close behind the Orion capsule for three days, but will be moving much too fast to achieve lunar orbit on its initial encounter. Instead, over the course of three months and five million miles, it will use its ion thruster and a highly elliptical route to achieve lunar capture. Principal Investigator and Director of the Space Science Center at Morehead State University, Dr. Benjamin Malphrus, anticipates a six-month working mission.

The university’s 21-meter dish currently pulls double duty in radio astronomy and spacecraft communication. It is slated to become the first non-NASA asset in the agency’s Deep Space Network, or DSN, joining antennas in Australia, California and Spain. Work is in progress to upgrade the instrument’s existing X-band capabilities and deep space ranging accuracy to make it compatible with the DSN. As it happens, Lunar IceCube will also use an X-band transponder.

Once a mere demonstration project, the CubeSat is slowly becoming an instrument of planetary science. As it matures, so does the expertise being cultivated in Kentucky.

21-meter Antenna at Morehead State University
21-meter Antenna at Morehead State University Image: Wayne Hall

Bluegrass State secret

The Planetary Society believes that everyone can participate in spaceflight. Senior editor Emily Lakdawalla writes often about the trove of public spacefaring data, which will only grow as planetary probes report on our solar neighborhood and space borne telescopes like Kepler— and, eventually, the James Webb Telescope— provide new insight into our local group of galaxies. The launch of The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 CubeSat will test solar sailing technology.

For my part, I’ve nurtured an interest in embedded software. The space probe data that Emily loves so much could be used, I believe, in technical art for the home, creating an emotional connection to space exploration. 

Few people will associate Kentucky with spaceflight, which requires significant intellectual and physical assets. And that’s okay. But thanks to a patient strategy of investing in the needed technologies, and more importantly, a strategic vision that bets on Kentucky’s people, something extraordinary is happening. Kris Kimel, Dr. Ben Malphrus, Twyman Clements and others who I haven’t mentioned are redefining what’s possible here. 

I’ve learned a secret from them that I’d like to share with you. 

The most damaging lies almost never come from the lips of other people. The most damaging lies, instead, are the ones we tell ourselves. The beauty of any worthwhile ambition, the magic of any big idea, is that no one can tell you now whether it will succeed.

Go and see. 

That’s always been the way, hasn’t it?

If you find yourself in Kentucky, I hope you’ll visit the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, Space Tango or Morehead State University. I think you’ll leave impressed. And should the conversation last into the evening, we’ll be happy to raise a glass with you, a toast to the risk takers, the space explorers.

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