Hawaii Space Exploration: UH Students Reach for the Sky

Once UH students fling their Hiaka Satellite into space, this place might never again be the same.


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Early next year, a rocket called the Super-Strypi will shoot into space, the first object ever thrust there from a Hawaiian launch pad. It’s significant, not just because a successful launch would advance Hawaii in the race to become the nation’s most called-upon and financed aerospace industry. (Florida and Texas are hosts to NASA, and New Mexico is developing a fledgling space-tourism industry.) The launch is also important because eight UH faculty members and 20 UH students are working frantically right now to build the launch facility, the satellite payload and the technology to monitor the satellite as it circles the planet in low-Earth orbit. It will be the first time the state has sent anything into space, and Hawaii students will have played a huge part in getting it there.

The project is sponsored by the Department of Defense’s Operationally Responsive Space Office, or ORS, which is the DoD’s answer to ever-fluctuating national security issues. ORS is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance concept born in 2007 to adapt space capabilities in rapid fashion. Say a war fighter needs to set up a communications station in the jagged Arma Mountains of Afghanistan. ORS develops technologies that would help him communicate without the need to set up an antenna and risk giving himself away.

While foot-soldier safety is a main ambition for ORS, it’s also concerned with efficiency, building equipment that’s “good enough,” and establishing more cost-effective and autonomous processes of getting technology into space quickly. For the upcoming Spring ’14 launch, which will take place at the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on Kauai, ORS is working with the Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory at UH, or HSFL, to build a system with a much smaller budget than most others. Everyone here would like to get a small satellite into low-Earth orbit for about $16 million, versus the current cost of a small launch: $30 million. (Of course, maiden voyages are generally more expensive. This first launch is estimated to cost $42 million.)

What’s more, ORS is similar to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in that it’s interested in education and outreach. It uses American universities as breeding grounds for innovative research that’s not held back by jaded career engineers or budgetary constraints. Basically, ORS appreciates ideas from students who think outside the box. But, unlike NASA, ORS works well in part because it doesn’t bog itself down with bureaucracy or the need to create high-end technology and expensive satellite equipment. In fact, it’s the opposite. ORS wants to build simple things fast, which makes it a good learning ground for students and teachers. Think about it this way: A NASA engineer could work on a project for 20 years and have it suddenly yanked. ORS, on the other hand, has already accomplished eight launches in the past six years.


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The rocket in the upcoming Kauai launch, officially called the ORS-4 Super-Strypi Responsive Small Launch, will be propelled into space by a relatively inexpensive solid-rocket system designed by aerospace company Aerojet. Luke Flynn, a Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology specialist and the director of HSFL, says it’s not a complicated rocket. “It’s a simple system. It’s easy in terms of guidance. It keeps costs low to develop these things and to launch them into space. And previous versions of the rocket are very reliable.”

It will lift off from a launcher designed and constructed by HSFL, carrying the main payload, a hyperspectral imaging satellite named HiakaSat, also designed and built by HSFL. Hiaka, in Hawaiian, according to the Andrews/Parker dictionary, means to “recite legends or fabulous stories.” It’s also the acronym for Hyperspectral Imaging, Aeronautical Kinematic Analysis.

Hyperspectral imaging is a nonphotographic mode of surveillance that collects information across the electromagnetic spectrum. This means you can dial it into a specific color spectrum and look for anything with a pink roof, for example. Some hyperspectral satellites are able to detect marijuana. This tactic of surveillance detects what’s otherwise invisible to photographic lenses or the human eye.

HiakaSat’s shipmates, 13 ORS CubeSats, are little boxes about the size of a Rubik’s Cube, costing between $1 million and $2 million, and while their specific missions haven't been finalized yet, they won’t be strong enough to check for pot. Flynn says HiakaSat will observe things such as ocean temperatures and other big-scale environmental monitoring. “We can see things like all of Oahu or half the Big Island at a time, but it’s not a super high-res sensor. We won’t be able to see individuals.”

Flynn says, “One of the interesting things we will look at is urban heat building, [or the instance of a city being significantly warmer than the area surrounding it due to human activities]. We can study where heat dissipation is a problem, or [look at] particular health issues with urban heat islands.”

In all, the payload weighs a modest 110 pounds, and, if successful, the launch could mean big business in small satellites for Hawaii’s aerospace industry. But why is Hawaii so marketable as an aerospace center in the first place? What’s so great about the Kauai Missile Range Facility, for example, versus the locations used in previous launches, such as 2008’s Kodiak, Alaska?

To answer this question, look no further than Jim Crisafulli, the director of the Hawaii Office of Aerospace Development (OAD), and the executive director of the Pacific International Space Alliance. He’s a one-man office within the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, serving as the cornerstone in the state government for aerospace initiatives. The OAD exists to explore and promote new trends or opportunities in the aerospace sector, whether federal or private, and bring students, experts, other governments and the general public together to establish a booming industry for getting into and understanding space. “It’s an industry that won’t be exported as it matures. It will stay here, because we have the best natural and developed infrastructures for space studies,” he says.

Crisafulli breaks it down in his “Aerospace Roadmap for the State of Hawaii:” “Because of ‘Hawaii’s strategic mid-Pacific/near-equatorial location, Moon/Mars-like terrain, resident expertise covering multiple aerospace-related technologies, and long-standing ties with space-faring nations throughout Asia and the Pacific,’ we have the potential to be ‘both a major contributor to and beneficiary of the global space enterprise,’” he says.

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