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First Person: Developing the Next Generation of STEM Leaders and Space Technology

Jennifer Carter, curriculum director for SpaceTrek at Morehead State University and director of Space Science for the Institute of Aerospace Education, recently talked with Area Development about the role that space science is now playing in growing the leaders and small businesses of tomorrow. The Space Science Center has become an important focus for research in nanosatellite technologies, better known as CubeSats. These small satellites are the size of a loaf of bread and have become the defacto worldwide standard for small satellite technologies.

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AD: Tell us a little bit about SpaceTrek.

Carter: SpaceTrek was founded in 2012 as a one-week space engineering camp for high school girls held at Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky. The goal of the pilot program is to empower young women through STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education by focusing on space systems engineering. We create a full-scale atmospheric mission where girls build, calibrate, and launch a satellite-like device and then perform data analysis measurements.

AD: What role does mentorship play in helping women enter male-dominated fields?

Carter: The American Association of University Women’s report Why So Few? addresses the lack of females in science and engineering. One of those identified needs is for more role models. Young women can find mentors online now through programs like FabFems or Million Women Mentors, which supports the engagement of one million STEM mentors from corporations, government entities, non-profits, and higher education.

AD: Do you think women with science and technology backgrounds would make good leaders for the manufacturing sectors?

Carter: We are missing a significant component within manufacturing by having it primarily male-dominated, particularly in management. There are many women with outstanding backgrounds in science, engineering, and technology that have significant management skills and would be highly effective in management-level positions.

AD: How is private investment in space exploration going to help businesses grow?

Carter: Private investment in aerospace companies, particularly in small space-related companies, has become significant and important of late. Small companies, including Skybox, a Stanford University spinoff that builds high-performance imaging satellites, and Planet Labs, which successfully launched the world’s largest earth-imaging constellation of 28 satellites, have greatly benefited from venture capital investment.
Jennifer Carter, curriculum director for SpaceTrek at Morehead State University and director of Space Science for the Institute of Aerospace Education, recently talked with Area Development about the role that space science is now playing in growing the leaders and small businesses of tomorrow.


AD: What impact has the venture capital investment had on these companies?

Carter: Skybox has developed satellites that take high-definition video from small space platforms. Google has purchased the technology. Venture capital infusion for Planet Labs has allowed them to build and launch large constellation satellite technologies. Investment in these companies allows them to offer opportunities to smaller businesses wanting access to space for commercial purposes. This allows these smaller companies to grow into bigger companies.

AD: Why is nanosatellite technology important to small and medium-sized businesses?

Carter: Nanosatellites, many of which can fit into the palm of your hand, have specific niche applications. They are inexpensive to develop, launch, and operate compared to large monolithic satellites. Nanosatellites may cost hundreds of thousands or a few million dollars to develop, whereas conventional satellites can cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and launch. So this technology is now economically feasible for smaller companies.

AD: How can businesses use this technology as a competitive advantage?

Carter: Companies can use the technology for everything from earth remote-sensing applications to tracking inventory being transported by ships around the world. Remote sensing technology works using broad optical spectrums that can monitor forest fires and flooding plains, which is useful in disaster relief. These satellites allow companies to have greater spacial coverage and more frequent refresh rates. Planet Labs can have a small satellite at any point over the Earth within 20 minutes. So it’s really about finding the niche that is appropriate for a company and then applying that technology to the business application. There are many women with outstanding backgrounds in science, engineering, and technology that have significant management skills and would be highly effective in management-level positions (within the manufacturing sector)

AD: What is the best way for cities and states to enhance and encourage technological innovation?

Carter: Cities and states play a critical role in the evolution of technological innovation and economic development. And one of the best ways to encourage technological growth is through public-private partnerships. For instance, look at the state of Fribourg in Switzerland. In the 1970s, Fribourg based its economy on agriculture. Today, its number-one manufactured export is aerospace. They did this through an intentional initiative to evolve their economic base to high-tech industries by working with the universities and high-tech companies in the region, and it worked. The Swiss used their clock-making skills and the abundance of particle physicists, because of the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s Large Hadron Collider research, to develop the first atomic time standards for the European GPS satellites.

AD: What can communities do to attract more high-tech companies?

Carter: Companies look for viable and technologically trained labor forces. They want to locate in regions where the health of the population is good so that workers don’t miss work shifts. And they want cost-effective benefits and health insurance. So the health of the workforce is a huge driver for attracting high-tech companies. Businesses also want cost-effective facilities with access to high speed Internet and to be located in regions with inexpensive power.

AD: How can municipalities better train their workforces for the 21st “high-tech” century?

Carter: Universities and technical and community colleges can create appropriate academic programs to produce a workforce for STEM positions. High schools can focus on initiatives that are STEM-oriented and produce feeder programs for the universities and technical colleges. Communities can also support and promote business incubators.

AD: What is happening “next generation” in nanosatellite technology?

Carter: There are two major technologies on the verge of being implemented that are game-changers for nanosatellite technologies. They are onboard propulsion systems and radiation tolerant technologies for microprocessors and microcontrollers. Propulsion systems allow satellites to change and leave their orbits to explore new regions, which is critical for satellite constellations to perform tasks such as earth remote sensing. Radiation-hardened and radiation-tolerant materials are also crucial for beyond earth exploration. Satellite technologies will take advantage of constellations for higher refresh rates and for exploring the unknown reaches of the solar system.
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