You probably know that Kentucky makes some mighty tasty bourbon, plays some mighty good college basketball (Universities of Kentucky and Louisville: shout out!) and raises and races the fastest horses in the world.
What you may not know is that it also builds and flies small spacecraft doing high value work in space, that young astro-engineers in the commonwealth are gaining commercially valuable experience and that, like exploration in any other extreme environment, experimental work in the dark and irradiated void of space delivers benefits to you and me.
One example: because hauling around bulky vacuum tubes wasn't practical, Apollo-era engineers created the integrated circuit. That breakthrough, now indispensable to every consumer electronic device on the planet, made it possible for the lunar astronauts to fly, control and communicate inside the lunar landing module. They flew the (primitive) software that flew the spacecraft.
Space exploration presents other challenges with Earthly payoffs.
What, for example, is the role of gravity in cellular and genetic expression? Controlling for that implacable, eternal force with a series of rapid, iterative experiments aboard the ISS may surrender clues that lead to successful therapies for terrible diseases on Earth. If that sounds like a stretch, consider this: the atoms and molecules that make up more complex structures like amino acids and proteins in your body were fused in ancient starry furnaces. We are stardust.
To tackle these questions and many others that have yet to be asked, the first business accelerator specifically for space enterprises and entrepreneurs - sorry Peter Thiel! - has been created in Kentucky. Applications are being accepted.
Other Kentucky craft in a very small class of free-flying spacecraft called Cubesats will characterize remnant X-ray energies originating from the Big Bang, and make serious contributions to Big Picture cosmology. Still more target the DIY space-enthusiast, pushing the envelope on functionality and cost. What's the minimal size for a working, communicating spacecraft? These "femto-class" craft will launch this fall and are designed to deorbit after a period of time, harmlessly vaporizing in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, leaving no trace of their existence.
Still others, like twin spacecraft pictured above, will test technologies like a stellar sextant, which will compare pictures of star fields to precisely locate themselves in the vast three dimensions of space, and, at the local level, back out that information to determine the tumble and roll rates of the craft taking the pictures. Scheduled for next month, one of these two craft is safely buttoned up inside its launch vehicle as I write this. Its flight will depend, as these things so often do, on the schedule of much larger and much more expensive spacecraft, which in this case is MAVEN. That craft set to leave Earth on Nov. 18 and will gather data on Mars' atmosphere when it reaches the Red Planet. Should for some reason MAVEN not fly on Nov. 18, KySat-2 could go as early as November 19.
Kentucky Space will share a specific launch date and time for KySat-2 with you via the @kyspace twitter account (please follow!) when it has it, and include a link so that you can watch the launch live. Once on orbit, amateur radio enthusiasts in backyards across the state will be able to hear and, using software created for the task, decode some data delivered by the craft. If you're interested, read about the development of KySat-2 in the "K2 Tuesdays" series over at the Kentucky Space web site.