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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Space Tourism in Hawaii? It's Probable

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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Need a Boost? Launch sites near the equator allow space vehicles to take advantage of Earth’s faster rotation speed at these latitudes. Above: (A) NASA’s Cape Canaveral, Florida, 915 mph; (B) Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, 1,000 mph; (C) The European Space Agency’s Kourou, French Guiana, 1,035 mph.

Being the state nearest to the equator has its advantages, as down here we spin a little over 1,000 mph, or 310 mph faster than those at the 45th parallel (roughly halfway to the poles). This is good for us because it requires less energy for a rocket to achieve escape velocity past Earth’s gravitational pull, making it more efficient and less expensive to get it there.

And wait. Did he say we have lunar and Martian-like terrain? Believe it or not, soil found in places on Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea is the most similar in the world to that found on the Moon or Mars, also known as regolith. The volcanoes of Hawaii are made with similar geochemical construction to lunar or Martian volcanoes, and create basaltic lava just as they do. (This is actually the most common type of lava in the whole solar system.) What’s more, while Olympus Mons on Mars is the largest-known volcano in the solar system—there are no plate tectonics on Mars, and there’s less gravity pulling down, so the more the volcano erupts, the taller it becomes—Mauna Loa is the second largest. Because these volcanoes are both so tall, they mimic each other’s landscape and weathering patterns.

Also, the vegetation on the Mauna Loa side of the saddle area makes it very conducive to accurately portraying the arid, desolate conditions of a lunar or Martian landscape. Apollo astronauts trained on Mauna Kea in the 1960s for lunar scenarios and right now NASA is funding a mission on the Mauna Loa side called the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS.

Kim Binsted is the principal investigator for this mission, which is tasked with evaluating how to cook food on Mars. She says the soils and other similarities between Olympus Mons and Mauna Loa are a tremendous boon for research. “It helps for long-duration studies that we’ve got the wonderful, almost seasonless weather here,” she says. “The participants can be on the site all year round and it’s still practical for them to be there,” whereas a study field in Antarctica is extremely difficult to reach in the winter.

While no specific destination has yet been chosen, she says, “NASA is interested in long duration missions. They want to be ready so that when the president says let’s go to X, then we’re good to go.” Binsted adds that experiments such as these are good for Hawaii.

“It’s a great way of bringing research funds to the state, and it gives our students all sorts of educational and work opportunities.”

The Big Island is also the planned future test site of what the OAD refers to as the International Lunar Research Park, or ILRP, a conceptual habitat on the Moon that hopes to see mankind’s return by 2022, 50 years after Apollo 17, the sixth and last time humans ever walked on the moon. The term “Luna City” has been floated as a possible name for future Moon suburbs.

The ILRP will be a main resource for studying long-term habitation on extraterrestrial destinations in-situ, meaning a dress rehearsal of the operations. It pays to work out the kinks before any actual lift-off, when there would be virtually no chance for a repair. If the state can get enough funding to realize the concept, this lunar analog facility will act as a research and development park to assist in fleshing out the prototype for the ILRP, which will be rolled out in phases: Phase One is the establishment of a terrestrial analog park; Phase Two will be an extraterrestrial site built by a team of robots; Phase Three will have humans living in the newly built habitat on such places as the Moon, near-Earth objects, Mars or other solar system bodies.

It might sound like a cover story for a tabloid, but this is a real plan conceived by PISA, a collaboration of various Pacific governments for the purpose of space travel, of which Crisafulli is the director. The ILRP is under serious consideration by OAD's Aerospace Advisory Committee, a team of influential players in the scientific and private sectors of the aerospace industry: Elliot Pulham (president of the Space Foundation), Michael Maberry (assistant director of the UH Institute for Astronomy), Peter Mouginis-Mark (director of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology), and other representatives of private-sector companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon. Crisafulli, as the OAD, acts as secretariat. The team sees it as a bridge to other destinations in space. If we can hop from structure to structure, the idea is that we can continue deeper into space throughout generations, and Hawaii can be the bridge to getting there.

The Aerospace Advisory Committee and others interested will gather for the Hawaii Aerospace Summit, scheduled for Oct. 9 and 10 at the state Capitol, to talk about the ILRP and other topics, such as the ORS-4 Super- Strypi launch.

Everyone is still hesitant to call the ORS-4 launch an official mission, mainly because it’s too early in the testing phases to know if it will be repeatable (as we went to press, there was still no definitive launch date). But that’s the aim. Flynn says his hunch is that it will get pushed into next year, but a launch is imminent. Construction is already underway to prepare the Kokole Launch Pad at the PMRF on Kauai.

On launch day, the Super-Strypi rocket will have gone through rigorous safety checks by its designer, Sandia National Laboratories (a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin and the resident contractor for the PMRF). It will stand connected to a red, white and blue rail launcher built by the HSFL and capable of supporting 50,000 pounds; in all, the Super-Strypi will weigh only 500 kilograms. Once the countdown is complete, the rocket will fire into the air, accelerating rapidly and leaving a column of white cloud behind it as it spins and needles through the layers of the atmosphere. Fuel is ignited in stages to propel it upward, and two side boosters will have fallen back to the Pacific by the time the rocket reaches the thermosphere, also known as low Earth orbit, not too far away. If you were to drive 60 mph straight into the night sky, it would take a little under three hours to meet the Super-Strypi.

Once the rocket reaches the desired altitude, it simply lets go of the payloads within the satellite bay to float, ideally situated in the correct orbit. (If not, propulsion can guide the payloads into the correct position, although this correction comes at the cost of energy and satellite lifespan.) Low-Earth orbit, or LEO, is the only orbit explored by human scientists (other than the Apollo missions to the Moon). There are currently roughly 18,000 man-made objects in LEO, 95 percent of which is space junk. The HiakaSat and CubeSats will be placed into the fray in a polar orbit, rotating around the planet from north to south while Earth spins east to west. This will eventually expose the entire planet to the satellites’ hyperspectral imaging.

The satellite will send data to the downlink station at Kauai Community College, where Georgeanne Friend, an instructor of electronic technology, and her students will monitor and analyze it during the satellite’s yearlong-or-more life expectancy.

In the end, the primary success of the mission for UH will be that it happened at all. “We’ll take pictures of the Hawaiian Islands to show that we’ve done it for our supporters,” Flynn says.

They should be proud. Students on this little constellation of islands in the middle of the Pacific will have established a new standard, a level of technological innovation that can only be built upon in the years to come. They will have proven that a more cost-efficient model of getting technology into space is possible, and that Hawaii can achieve it, which would mean high returns in Hawaii’s economy. The rates, according to a UH review and analysis of Hawaii’s aerospace industry, are projected to grow 2.1 percent annually, or 61 percent faster than Hawaii’s overall economy. In short, a success would prove that we’re not just sexy; we’re pretty damned smart, too.

As the ever-determined Crisafulli puts it, “NASA was created in ’58, Hawaii became a state in ’59, and we’ve been dancing for half a century together in space ever since. You know, because we’ve got the right stuff. It’s ours to lose.”