West Virginia is now on its way toward launching the state’s second small satellite. A team from West Virginia University and the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium is poised to turn that achievement into a massive boost for the aerospace industry statewide by taking the first steps toward opening the West Virginia Small Satellite Center of Excellence.
The SmallSat Center will work with businesses and other organizations to develop West Virginia’s second small satellite and to help those partners offer services and products to clients who want to fly experiments out to low orbit. As Melanie Page, director of the Space Grant Consortium, put it, “It’s like a ‘Field of Dreams’ for small satellites.”
With the announcement of $911,708 in U.S. Economic Development Administration funding, that mission is a go.
West Virginia’s first small satellite, STF-1, launched from New Zealand in 2018 and vastly exceeded the usual three-month lifespan for a SmallSat – it’s still up there, transmitting from outer space, more than 1,300 days later. When it came time to capitalize on STF-1’s success, Candy Cordwell, assistant director of the Space Grant Consortium, and Majid Jaridi, former director, envisioned the next SmallSat kickstarting and sustaining an entire industry for aerospace research, products and services in West Virginia.
The EDA’s Assistance to Coal Communities grant goes to projects that advance economic diversification, aerospace manufacturing and STEM training opportunities in areas severely affected by the declining use of coal. In the case of WVU’s initiative, Page said the money will not only support the Innovative Orbital Test Array mission, or IOTA, in which a second SmallSat will be produced and launched as STF-1’s proof of concept, but it will also enable the opening of the SmallSat Center of Excellence.
The Center will be a hub for small satellite research, development, testing, production and commercialization, and “truly an innovation incubator that meets the needs of an industry that meets the needs of customers,” according to David Martinelli, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, who has joined forces with Cordwell and Page to launch the SmallSat Center.
“We’re going to be building satellites in West Virginia,” he said. “As soon as STF-1 was up there for 300 days, people started saying seriously that this is something we should be very proud of and try to capitalize on, and Candy Cordwell and Majid Jaridi came up with the concept of positioning space as an industry for West Virginia. STF-1 was built with West Virginia talent and West Virginia capability. I think that speaks to the likelihood of our success for step two.”
Cordwell said she was thrilled about the project’s potential to kickstart an industry that will have Mountain State residents designing and building satellites destined for the stars.
“This could enable West Virginia to participate in the rapidly growing commercial sector associated with the launch and operation of small satellites,” she said. “The very unique and exciting aspect of this project is that it brings academic, industrial and government partners together to initiate and foster a research center that will bring jobs and economic activities to North Central West Virginia.”
Demand for small satellites is very much on the rise, Page added, with the global market expected to hit more than $3 billion a year and with a robust client base that include governments, companies and research institutions. The SmallSat Center will support West Virginia businesses in serving customers that could range from a telecommunications company to a national cybersecurity program or a research institute monitoring climate change. It will be those clients’ needs that help drive the design of the second-generation IOTA satellite.
Like STF-1, the second SmallSat will be fitted with a flight computer, radio, solar panels and cells, a camera and other instruments for data detection and collection, as well as slots for the satellite’s payload — computer cards that carry the clients’ instructions to the satellite, whether they’re looking to use it to monitor space weather or enable in-car navigation systems.
The IOTA SmallSat may be a three-unit cube satellite, like STF-1, with a form based around three 10-centimeter cubes, or it could be scaled up to a six-unit CubeSat. Or it might take a different form altogether, according to the feedback the SmallSat Center will hear from potential clients and partners.
“Let's say that a client came to the Center and said, ‘We’re really interested in a satellite that serves a certain need,’” Martinelli said. “What we may do first and foremost is put them in touch with one of our private partners in the state and say, ‘OK, here's the company that's ultimately going to build this satellite for you.’ Then we would work with that company to find out what needs to be done, to help them deliver whatever that commercial need is. Our role is to use our talents and facilities and opportunities to fill the innovation gaps to help a West Virginia company serve a client for a small satellite.”
Martinelli relishes the fact that this project is equal parts science and industry, theory and practice.
“What makes this special is that, although West Virginia currently has significant space-related activities, I believe this is the first one that's truly commercial. West Virginia has research contracts with NASA and related agencies, but the idea of space commercialization and industry in West Virginia is new,” he said.
“We've demonstrated we can produce space products in West Virginia. We now have to demonstrate that we can produce space products that have market value, so I want to make sure that from day one the innovation is very intentional in terms of bringing value to as many different industries as possible.”
Cordwell said the SmallSat Center will create 15 new jobs immediately: five at WVU and 10 through the consultant company that will initially be contracted to offer small satellite simulation, design, manufacturing, deployment and management services to the team. Within three to five years, as the center becomes financially self-sustaining, she predicted that the high-wage staff positions will increase to more than 30 jobs in administration, business development, education and advanced aerospace manufacturing.
Martinelli said he believes it won’t be long before West Virginia has a significant need for “computer scientists and engineers of all types – electrical and computer engineers, chemical and aerospace engineers, even structural engineers – as well as analysts, people who know how to work with data. That's going to be a big part of it because ultimately the value of the satellite is usually data driven. Data is the ultimate product and many emergent companies here will need somebody who knows how to work with data, statisticians and analysts and modelers and mathematicians.”
Page pointed out that, considering West Virginia lost 1,800 technology and science jobs between February and May 2020, making sure those aerospace positions are filled by skilled, trained West Virginians is part of the vision, too.
“If you talk to anyone that’s in engineering or a STEM field, they say two things matter in terms of someone’s decision to follow that career path," Martinelli said. "No. 1 is that you get to them early. No. 2 is that there’s somebody, maybe a family member or maybe someone else in their life, who works in STEM.”
Martinelli acknowledged that too many youth in West Virginia lack one or both of those opportunities but said he’s passionate about engineering education and growth in STEM.
“We’re going to use the SmallSat Center as an opportunity to hit that aggressively. I certainly will look at all possibilities to showcase what we're doing to K-12 students,” he said.
“This is the advantage of working with the University, the fact that it gives us not just our research capabilities, but the educational mission as well. We have our clean room and labs where the satellite will be assembled and components tested and so forth. I want to see a parade of students in there on elementary school field trips. I want to see young students going through the facility where they talk to engineers and foster interest in STEM careers.”