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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 56, No. 11           May 28, 2004
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

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Sandia-designed space reactor could drive in-orbit salvage tug Sandia, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs to collaborate on MEMS, nano, and software projects Sandians propose plan to simplify security measures for bioresearch

Sandia-designed space reactor could drive in-orbit salvage tug

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By Bill Murphy

Roger Lenard and a group of like-minded scientists and engineers at Sandia -- notably, Paul Pickard, Ron Lipinski, and Steve Wright, space nuclear power guys -- envision and work for a day when human crews explore the solar system on a grand scale. And they're convinced with a serene certainty that the way to do it -- the only viable way to do it (and they have the numbers to make their case) -- is via nuclear rocketry.

What these persistent and patient researchers at Sandia (along with other initiates around the space exploration community) have needed and wanted is a way to prove to skeptics that space nuclear power is the practical, safe, reliable, and efficient propulsion system that they know it to be.

Proof in the marketplace

They are about to get their proof in that most critical, demanding, unblinkingly pragmatic arena of them all -- the marketplace.


IOSTAR Corp., a long-time Sandia CRADA partner through its parent company, Intraspace Corp., earlier this month made its business case for a nuclear-powered space tug to investors attending the Technology Ventures Corp. Equity Capital Symposium. The power behind the tug would be based on a Sandia-designed, developed, built, and operated gas-cooled reactor driving an ion engine, using inert xenon gas as the propellant.

IOSTAR -- the name is an acronym for In Orbit Space Transportation And Recovery -- bases its business model on what it estimates to be a $7-billion-a-year market opportunity. IOSTAR projects that it can capture 10 percent of that market in its first year of operation and 30 percent by the tenth year.

Several years ago, it occurred to Intraspace officials that there could be a large market in the satellite recovery business. Each year, in the commercial arena alone, a certain number of launches fail to put satellites in the correct orbit, making them effectively useless for their intended mission, nothing more than multimillion-dollar space junk.

But if, Intraspace reasoned, if you could intercept the stranded satellite -- usually stuck in a low earth orbit (LEO) rather than the intended geosynchronous orbit (GEO) -- and move it efficiently to the correct orbit . . . if you could do that, insurance carriers would pay good money for the service. The market analysis showed that there was indeed a need for the service. It also discerned a healthy market potential in the new launch business -- a conventional chemical rocket would boost a satellite to LEO and a more efficient system would tug it to GEO. The market also lay open for a satellite maintenance and upgrade.

So, sure, there was a market. There's a market for gold, too. But you can't make any money if it costs you more to get the gold out of the mountain than you can sell it for on the street.

Enter Sandia.

The story of IOSTAR and Sandia could be a case study for the nexus among entrepreneurialism and technology, vision and engineering, the dreamable and the doable.

Roger Lenard recounts that Intraspace, seeking to make the business case for what was clearly a solid technical concept, came to Sandia asking about using nuclear-powered rocket. A CRADA relationship was established at that time.

In his analysis for Intraspace, which factored in how much an insurance company would be likely to pay for a recovery service, how much mass would need to be moved from LEO to GEO, and how long customers would be willing to wait for their satellites to arrive on station, Roger determined that you'd need a propulsion system with a specific impulse of at least 900 seconds simply to pay for propellant to move the satellite around, given today's launch costs. (See "Specific impulse defined" below.)

A reactor-based system made sense

Subsequent, more detailed analysis of the challenge, Roger says, pointed more and more toward one inevitable conclusion: the technology that made sense -- from a technical and business perspective -- was a reactor-based nuclear-electric system.

"For a variety of reasons, primarily having to do with risk and cost, we settled on a system that was a direct gas-cooled reactor; it would directly drive a Brayton cycle conversion system, and that would directly drive a set of ion engines operating at about 4,000 seconds of specific impulse."

The numbers were good. Sandia demonstrated to Intraspace's satisfaction that if they were to pursue the space salvage market, nuclear was the way to go; realistically, the only way to go.

Now, with a viable plan in hand and a solid business case, Intraspace needed to raise money. There was a source: a federal loan program that was used to finance the Tracking Data Relay Satellite System. Through four years of effort in Washington, Intraspace helped shepherd legislation through Congress that would provide a $1.5 billion loan for a commercially viable reusable in-space transportation system. In other words, for something that sounds very much like IOSTAR. The legislation was generic -- i.e., the loan would be available for such a system; it would be up to Intraspace to demonstrate that its IOSTAR concept met the requirements of the legislation.

(Roger here clarifies the IOSTAR operational model. The reactor-powered system would stay in space and would be replenished with xenon fuel from time to time. Ideally, it would never be idle, but would always be moving stuff around for customers. "You don't want to make them [the IOSTAR tugs] wait between jobs in a parking orbit," he says. "You want to follow the Southwest Airlines model: the planes don't make any money unless they're in the air -- with passengers in them.")

A rigorous process

It turns out, Roger says, that the federal loan for IOSTAR is available, but the company needs about $15 million to complete a very rigorous, very detailed loan application that requires "an awful lot of knowledge about the system in terms of cost, schedules, risks, market assessments, payback, salvage value -- just a wide variety of things."

Timing happened to be good for the IOSTAR project: legislation just passed in the State of New Mexico allowed direct state investment in businesses with potential long-term beneficial impact on the state's economy. And the state, under Gov. Bill Richardson's leadership, has seen the private space business as a growth opportunity for New Mexico. In the meantime, Technology Ventures Corporation got wind of IOSTAR and recognized in it a great potential that perfectly fit the TVC profile.

"TVC decided this was a great project," Roger says. "It transferred Sandia-developed technology -- namely, the gas-cooled reactor; the integrated Brayton cycle, all the models we developed, our shielding, our test facilities, as well as our direct operator capability (for technical and legal reasons, Sandia and DOE would own and operate the actual reactor operation in the IOSTAR model) -- to a commercial venture that satisfied a wide, wide range of commercial, military, and, eventually, NASA missions."

TVC, Roger says, took on Intraspace/IOSTAR as a client, and spent several months working with them, helping them revise some aspects of their financial model to make the enterprise more attractive to the investor community.

And that brought IOSTAR to the Equity Capital Symposium early this month.

If IOSTAR, through its TVC symposium exposure or otherwise, finds its angel (and the state may very well be a partner in any equity investment), Roger says, "it looks like the project could be launched in somewhere between four-and-a-half and five years, everything going according to plan. There are always hiccups here and there, but that looks like a schedule that could be met."

Epistemologically proper thing

Roger welcomes Sandia's involvement in IOSTAR as an opportunity to prove the concept he and his colleagues have been working toward.

"Look," he says, "first off, we ought to be doing it because it's the right thing to do. You can only do so much exploration with 300 watts of power, solar cells, and 450 seconds of specific impulse. So if you ever want to operate within the solar system cost-effectively and with regularity, you're going to have to have nuclear power systems. So there is the motivation in the fact that this is the epistemologically proper thing to do. Now having said that, the IOSTAR people aren't the only ones who have seen the light. NASA has its Prometheus program, which is looking at nuclear electric propulsion and expansions to the radioisotope program and may, the rumor mill has it, may be looking at nuclear thermal-based systems again.

"You know, it seems to me that the important point is that there is a convergence of the fact that there are commercially viable missions and a technological capability here. The time is right.

"All of this is in its infancy and can still founder again, but to the extent that Sandia can bring its technical forces to bear safely in an expedient fashion it seems to me we'll do that." -- Bill Murphy

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Sandia, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs to collaborate on MEMS, nano, and software projects

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By Michael Padilla

Sandia and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs have entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) as a basis for future technical collaborations at the Colorado Springs campus.

The MOU encourages cooperative efforts between Sandia and CU-Colorado Springs in a broad range of technology areas including microelectronics, MEMS (microelectromechanical systems), nanotechnology, and software for numerous space and security applications. The agreement also emphasizes advanced manufacturing technology, recognizing the need for US industry to remain competitive in the global economy.

CU-Colorado Springs recently established the Rocky Mountain Technology Alliance (RMTA), an organization of industry, government, and university leaders seeking to establish a technology-rich business development environment in Colorado Springs and the surrounding region. The agreement stems from a relationship between RMTA and Sandia's Regional Alliance for Manufacturing Program (RAMP).

RAMP is a strategic Sandia manufacturing initiative led by Sandia's Manufacturing Systems Science and Technology Division. One of RAMP's objectives is to establish regional partnerships with universities, industry, and government to engage in manufacturing R&D, exercise Sandia's capabilities through technical assistance projects, and help to develop and improve the high-tech manufacturing capabilities of current and potential partners.

Leaders at CU-Colorado Springs and Sandia believe they have mutual interests and capabilities in areas that can be combined to meet the high-tech manufacturing objectives at Sandia, RMTA, and CU-Colorado Springs. Areas of interest include microsystems and nanotechnologies, space systems and engineering, cybersecurity, computer and communication networks, power and energy systems, and advanced manufacturing.

Lenny Martinez, VP for Manufacturing Systems, Science & Technology (14000), says there are a number of potential areas for collaboration between the two organizations.

"One that we are particularly interested in at Sandia is providing technical assistance to commercial high-tech manufacturing firms in Colorado Springs and other communities throughout the state of Colorado in support of our regional manufacturing strategies as identified by RAMP," Lenny says. "These types of assistance projects are of growing importance to Sandia in terms of our needs for partnerships and manufacturing supply chain development."

Jeremy Haefner, Dean of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Director of the Colorado Institute of Technology Transfer and Implementation at CU-Colorado Springs, says the future of the University and the economic future of the Colorado Springs region are mutually dependent on technology -- specifically technology that can be developed and commercialized here in the region as opposed to in other US cities or abroad.

"We are citizens of the Rocky Mountain Technology Corridor -- the region stretching from northern Colorado to southern New Mexico -- from which much of modern technology flows," Haefner says. "We will expand our applied research in the region through CU-Colorado Springs and in cooperation with our partners, which will lead to substantially increased technology commercialization and production."

CU-Colorado Springs is the fastest growing university in Colorado and one of the fastest growing universities in the nation. The university offers 25 bachelor's, 17 master's, and two doctoral degrees. The campus enrolls more than 7,600 students annually. -- Michael Padilla

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Sandians propose plan to simplify security measures for bioresearch

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By Neal Singer

One-size-fits-all federal regulations locked into place at the nation's biological laboratories to improve security against terrorism after 9/11 may be impeding useful biodefense and public health research, say Sandia researchers Jennifer Gaudioso and Reynolds Salerno (both 6928) in a paper published in the April 30 Science.

The terrorism threat is real, but most experts would agree that Rocky Mountain

Spotted Fever presents less danger as a biological weapon than anthrax, write the authors. However, current regulations require the same security measures for both.

Among the problems, the writers suggest, is the proposition that any biological agent or toxin on the regulated list requires security, while those not on the list need none.

The researchers suggest instead a security risk assessment procedure that would place pathogens and toxins in one of four biosecurity levels, similar to a color-coding system. The overwhelming majority of pathogens would fall into the low-risk category, requiring procedures as minimal as locking doors. Most of the commonly dangerous agents would land in the moderate risk category, requiring access controls and personnel checks. Already-in-place biosafety measures would keep costs down.

By this process, "high risk" or "extreme risk" -- the two top categories -- would be limited to the very few organisms that represent true weapon threats. Only labs working with those organisms would be subject to the extra expense in security these agents would require.

This graded response, the authors feel, "would remove the ambiguity of the current regulatory approach and facilitate continued biomedical and bioscience research."

They note that the expense of the "black-and-white" approach has led to a sharp decline in laboratories registering to do work on threatening biological organisms of every stripe.

The Center for Disease Control expected 817 labs to register to examine and control regulated biological agents; instead, only 323 facilities registered.

"Actions such as these [responses to undifferentiated regulations]," write the authors, "will suffocate valuable public health and biodefense research, which will further compromise our ability to respond to bioterrorism and infectious disease outbreaks."

Jen and Ren are staff members of Sandia's Chem-Bio Nonproliferation Department who work to secure dangerous pathogens and toxins against theft and sabotage. They have worked on biosecurity issues at many federal facilities. -- Neal Singer

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Last modified: June 3, 2004

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