Aerospace giants and fledgling game-changers showed how they’re aiming to alter the business of space as they converged on the 36th Space Symposium, following a COVID-induced break last year.
The annual event, held at The Broadmoor, brings space experts from around the world to Colorado Springs for a week of panel discussions and exhibits. This year highlighted Colorado’s contributions to the space industry, both in defense and exploration.
On the first day of the symposium Northrop Grumman, which employs more than 2,200 people in Colorado, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the company’s new facility at the InterQuest Business Park.
“We are pleased to have Northrop Grumman’s missile defense solutions and strategic deterrent teams move into this new building,” said Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers. “It demonstrates Northrop Grumman’s continued commitment to the local community here in Colorado Springs.”
The new facility, which features advanced engineering and research labs, software development factories and a high-speed, multi-secured communications network, builds Northrop Grumman’s Springs presence, which was previously centralized at its Peak Innovation Park facility near the Colorado Springs Airport.
“Northrop Grumman is at the forefront of defense research,” said Blake Larson, corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Space Systems in a news release. “Our new labs and collaborative zones better enable us to deliver innovative solutions that help to protect and defend our nation and its allies.”
After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Northrop Grumman executives promoted developments in missile defense systems at a press briefing.
“Strategic missile warning is a key element of our national defense,” said Sarah Willoughby, VP and program manager of Northrop Grumman’s Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared. “We rely on a constellation of satellites that detect infrared, or heat signatures, for missile launches around the globe. Our ability to detect those launches, to know and understand who launched what from where is a critical aspect of deterrence. These satellites operate in different orbits to provide persistent global coverage.”
Willoughby highlighted Northrup Grumman’s polar-orbiting OPIR satellites, currently in development, and addressed rapid developments in missile defense — a sign of a solid future for the newly opened Colorado Springs facility.
“As the U.S. government was considering follow-on options to the SBIRS Missile Warning System, they were confronted with new challenges,” Willoughby explained. “First, there are new threats that have been developed to exploit the vulnerabilities of our current capabilities. They’ve modified their missiles to be harder to detect; they’ve invested in things like sub-based launch capabilities to extend the element of surprise and shorten our reaction times. More importantly, we face a situation where space is no longer a sanctuary, but rather it’s a warfighting domain.”
While giants like Northrop Grumman were given top billing at the symposium, newer companies looking to do business in space were on display in The Broadmoor’s Lockheed Martin Exhibit Center. Neutron Star Systems, a German company, won the U.S. Department of Commerce’s SelectUSA Pitch Competition in April and was accepted into Springs-based Catalyst Accelerator, a program that helps businesses partner with the Space Force and Air Force.
“We’re a space startup, focused on the development of disruptive electric propulsion, and that propulsion technology is based on something we call ‘high temperature superconductors,’” explained Manuel La Rosa Betancourt, co-founder and CEO of Neutron Star Systems. “High temperature superconductors are materials that are used for the production of very lightweight, compact, power-dense appliances. They can be used in electric propulsion, for making magnets that can accelerate plasma and generate high-density thrust. This thrust is particularly good because you can use it for larger spacecraft and larger missions.”
Betancourt and his team have been working to develop real-world applications for their technology. “We just finished the awesome cohort of summer 2021 [at the Catalyst Campus],” he said. “That cohort was about orbit-servicing, assembly and manufacturing in space. Another of our missions is that due to the fact that we can upscale power in space, we can allow for spacecraft platforms that can provide more power for operations like geo-communications satellites, allowing for more encryption capabilities, computing capabilities, and transmission capabilities. If you want to have communications of a country, like the United States, with a Space Force, Air Force, Navy, et cetera, and you want to have secure communications among all those domains you need very powerful satellites.
“The way they have been doing it previously is that the satellites have been done with conventional technology, so if you want more capability you need larger spacecraft, more weight, more inefficient. With our technology, we change this paradigm and we can allow for spacecraft that is very powerful, very useful — but remains small, lightweight and compact.”
In addition to powering spacecraft, Betancourt says applied-field magnetoplasmadynamic thrusters have other applications.
“Our systems can be used for reentry systems,” he said. “You create an electromagnetic field that pushes the plasma-bonded layer away from the spacecraft, and reduces the thermal loads that the spacecraft is suffering, allowing for safer reentry of a spacecraft. If your thermal protection system fails, you might lose your spacecraft and your crew, like with the Columbia, for example.
“With this system you can mitigate the blackout communications taking place during reentry. We can mitigate that by creating a magnetic window that allows for radio-frequency communication during reentry.”
Betancourt was also at the symposium to scout for talent. He said Neutron Star Systems is looking to establish a small office in Colorado Springs with three to five employees.
While defense applications in space were on full display, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson took time during the symposium to highlight the space agency’s exploration work and the Colorado businesses that are making it possible.
Nelson highlighted companies like BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado Boulder, which conducts microgravity life science research, and Advanced Space of Westminster, which will be mapping the elliptical orbit for the Artemis mission’s lunar outpost.
“It leads a pathfinding CubeSat mission that will be the first to fly in cislunar space — that’s in the space around the moon,” explained Nelson. “It’s called ‘CAPSTONE’ [Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment] and it will test out a unique lunar orbit that Gateway will use as the moon orbiting outpost for the Artemis program.
“This is not a lunar orbit ride around the equator around the moon. This is an orbit that goes way up and then comes in and close to the surface of the moon. It will also demonstrate an innovative spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation technology, developed by this company by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research Awards.
“It’s a small but mighty technology demonstration that represents innovative collaboration between NASA and small business, and it provides rapid results and feedback to inform future exploration and science missions.”
The 36th Space Symposium is not just the first COVID-era symposium, it is also the first symposium after the Trump administration’s surprise January announcement that U.S. Space Command would move from Colorado Springs to Huntsville, Alabama.
While that decision is still under review, the announcement was enough to raise questions about the impact such a move would have on the Colorado Springs economy. While those questions remain, the investment of aerospace giants like Northrop Grumman in Colorado Springs — and the fact that Colorado as a whole remains a prime destination for space industry startups and innovators — are reassuring.