TRAVERSE CITY — More than 200 space industry experts gathered over the weekend for the second annual Michigan Space Forum in Traverse City.
They heard about recent developments in the satellite-launching business. Many attendees were mainly interested in a topic close to home — the possibility of establishing a launch site in Michigan.
Eight commercial air and spaceports currently exist on U.S. soil.
"The hope is to make Michigan number nine on that list," said Brian Gulliver, an engineer with Kimley-Horn who has helped design two spaceports, including the Colorado Air and Space Port at Front Range Airport near Denver.
Colorado is the furthest north of the existing eight commercial ports. The others are in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and California. Several states — including Maine — are at various stages in the planning process as they work toward approval by the Federal Aviation Administration.
"The number of space ports is growing globally," said Virgin Orbit's Monica Jan, "So Michigan is not alone."
Virgin Orbit is developing a launch system that includes a jet airplane that carries a rocket far up into the atmosphere, which then carries a payload into orbit. The company plans its first test flight late this year.
Michigan may hold a couple of advantages over other states vying for position in the commercial space race.
"Most clients want polar orbits," said Chuck Lauer of Rocketplane Global. "All of these are accessible from Michigan."
Many existing satellites are parked in orbits that keep them in the same place in relation to the ground — in geosynchronous orbits. That was a technical necessity in the past. It allowed ground-based antennas to aim at satellites that were always in about the same place. A satellite in geosynchronous orbit spins around the Earth somewhere near the equator and in the same direction of the Earth's rotation, so it can travel fast enough to balance gravity but maintain its relative position.
Launch sites near the equator make sense for putting geosynchronous satellites into orbit.
But technology is changing. Satellites are getting smaller, cheaper and easier to communicate with. Companies, instead of a handful of large satellites, are deploying hundreds of small satellites in varying orbits throughout the atmosphere that work together. Such a network spreads out the workload. And the satellites can move in relation to the ground while maintaining communication. Satellites in polar orbits are relatively close to the planet's surface, which results in faster communications than with geosynchronous satellites much farther away.
A distributed network of many small satellites can still function if one or two stop working. A distributed network is a more difficult target for enemies. Michigan's ability to launch into a variety of polar orbits may give it an advantage in the race. So might the existence of airspace over Lake Huron already designated for military use, said Gulliver.
"Lately, airspace has a been a very hot topic," he said.
Michigan's relatively cold weather shouldn't be an obstacle to launches, said Gulliver. A military launch site on Kodiak Island in Alaska has proven reliable, he said.
"It's not something that hasn't been addressed earlier," he said of cold weather launches. "I don't see it as a big business impediment."
U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman told the group that Michigan's cold might make the state attractive to companies interested in testing in inclement weather.
"We have some interesting winter weather," said Bergman. "Michigan is the future. We offer things that the rest of the country doesn't."
He said Michigan has the land, reserved airspace and manufacturing capacity necessary to become a space powerhouse.
Day 1 keynote speaker retired Brig. Gen. Pet Worden, USAF, addressed space issues far beyond Michigan. Efforts are in progress to design spacecraft capable of reaching Alpha Centauri, the star closest to our own sun.
"This solar system is so boring," he joked. "No scary aliens or anything."
Worden said he thinks microscopic life may exist deep under the surface of Mars, could exist in the upper atmosphere of Venus, and possibly could exist elsewhere in the solar system.
He is involved with Breakthrough Initiatives, an effort to reach other star systems. He told forum attendees that research is progressing on tiny probes, small enough to fit in a shirt pocket that theoretically could deploy solar sails and be powered by a huge Earth-based laser to reach 20 percent the speed of light. Such a probe could reach Alpha Centauri in 20 years from launch, he said.
Forum attendees, though, primarily were interested in bringing space-based business to Michigan.
"This is going to be a collaborative effort," said Gavin Brown, of the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturing Association. "This is going to be about relationships. We want to help you have the opportunity to grow your businesses."
Other speakers included Astronaut Doug Wheelock, Astronaut Greg Johnson, and Mike Carey, founder and chief strategy officer of Traverse City-based Atlas Space Operations.
Sessions during the forum included panels on Launch in Michigan, Emerging Space Technologies, Big Versus Small Satellites, Space Enabled Internet of Things, Government Role in Space Innovation and Entrepreneurial Women in Space.