In 2012, approximately one thousand active satellites were orbiting earth. By the winter of 2021 that number had more than quadrupled. While the quantity and corresponding capabilities of satellites in space continues to expand, their physical size has shrunk: a satellite in the 1960s was likely larger than a greyhound bus; today’s machines are smaller than a standard mini-fridge.
Witnessing and contributing to the evolution of this technology has been a long-time focus of Jeff Ganley, a senior aerospace engineer with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Space Vehicles Directorate. He also contributes to the field as a technical advisor and innovation portfolio lead for the Space Control Technologies branch at AFRL.
Recently, Ganley has been interested in the parallel growth in satellite technology and the increased exploration of microgravity production. It was in this capacity that he partnered with Hyperspace Challenge in 2021 to identify commercial technology that can leverage microgravity for military and commercial applications.
The 2021 Hyperspace Challenge cohort yielded three teams that could do just that: G-Space, Inc. is an industrial AI company creating a SaaS platform which limits expensive in-space trial/error processes by modeling and predicting the impact of manufacturing materials in microgravity environments; Varda Space Industries is developing better methods for orbital manufacturing and methods for returning materials to the earth’s surface, including orbital return capsules; and Texas State University’s Department of Engineering Technology is exploring crystallization that occurs during the fabrication of a heavy-metal fluoride glass called ZBLAN, and the impact microgravity environments/vibrations have in its development.
We recently caught up with Ganley to find out more about his work with these teams, what advice he has for future Hyperspace Challenge cohort participants, where the future of microgravity is headed, and the evolution of small satellites.
HSPC: How has satellite technology evolved since you entered the field?
When I was starting out, in the nineties, the government had satellites that provided communications or were observatories surveying the skies. In those days, a single satellite cost hundreds of millions – or even billions – of dollars, and launches were few and far between. Because of those limitations, you needed to guarantee that a technology was going to work, so you ended up getting more exquisite and building bigger.
Thinking about risk, efficiency, and cost, the Department of Defense realized it should distribute mission needs more effectively. So, the research started heading towards breaking down this large-scale paradigm and began to embrace emerging technology that was more compact and more capable. With this approach, when something fails it doesn’t compromise the whole endeavor. This distribution and the available technology today is what seems to be quite different from when I started.
Additionally, looking back, the commercial side for small satellites has gone from a handful of companies in the early 2000s to literally hundreds now. We’re in the trillions of dollars of commercial money flowing into the small satellite arena alone, and it’s not going to stop.
HSPC: As a government scientist, what was the value in participating in the Hyperspace Challenge, and what advice do you have for startups or university research teams that may be interested in applying?
Our jobs at AFRL often involve trying to figure out what’s coming next technology-wise and then finding ways to help to make it happen, so it helps to know what is evolving on the commercial side. When there is investment and innovation on the commercial side, that’s when things really move. As a government scientist participating in accelerators like Hyperspace Challenge you get a refreshed perspective on the scene and the potential avenues being explored by emerging companies.
As for startups and university research teams that may be interested in participating in future cohorts, the best way to get the most out of these programs is to be really engaged. This actually goes for both the commercial and government sides. The program really reinforced for me that you get out of it what you put in, and while I knew about the work being done by all three of the teams I worked with, taking a deeper dive into their technology and research was really useful. And, the program’s structure, which supports and fosters but doesn’t force interactions, helps the entire effort feel like an organic and valuable use of time.
HSPC: What was exciting or surprising to see from the three teams you worked with?
One of the most encouraging things was to be able to see how quickly the commercial side is progressing. Varda is nearly one hundred percent commercially funded. Working with the teams reinforced for me how the ball has moved from a scenario where only NASA and the DoD are interested in furthering technology through research, to a place where startups are saying they don’t need to rely on only government funding to develop their ideas.
HSPC: How has microgravity research evolved, and what does the future for it look like in the context of the larger space industry ecosystem?
There has been a clear evolution. We are starting to prove out that there are fundamental things you can make in microgravity that you cannot make on the ground. And there are things you can make better. The difficulty in the past has been making a business case for microgravity research because the launch opportunities were so limited and the technology was not yet advanced enough to support the work. Now, there are more than 10 launch vehicles that are flying all the time. So, the potential applications of using microgravity environments are growing and there are new opportunities because the industry as a whole is expanding so rapidly.
For example, in the late nineties NASA began experimenting with the potential production and uses of ZBLAN. This heavy-metal fluoride glass, made from a chemical composition of zirconium, barium, lanthanum, aluminum, and sodium, crystallizes when you produce it on earth. In microgravity environments the material can be formed in a way that at the time looked promising for applications in fiber optics. AFRL teams continued to do work in the area after that early research. Building on this work, Varda is now positioned to take it further and sell this fiber that they’ve made in space to the DoD or even to companies that will be laying fibers under the street and under the ocean for the future of the Internet.
HSPC: The impact of gravity on manufacturing is not something the ordinary American thinks about. Are you saying manufacturing in space actually opens up entirely new areas of innovation?
Yes. Gravity is relevant to everything we do on earth. The one thing that’s unique about going into orbit is that gravity goes away, and this has a significant impact. You can break it down into fundamental physics-type mechanisms: lack of buoyancy, convection, lack of sedimentation, and with all of these factors in play you can do things like make better fiber optic glass or high performance turbine blades. In a simple example, we can only grow carbon nanotubes on the ground to a certain height because they fall over in the presence of gravity. In microgravity, they don’t. There’s no gravity to pull them over; it gets more complicated than that, but thinking about why it works in those terms is actually not a bad idea. There are untold ways in which this is going to accelerate technology here on earth. Quantifying that and predicting it is probably almost impossible, but it’s an exciting prospect.