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My View: Arizona a gateway to space as more manufacturers enter our orbit

AZ Inno

Would you be surprised if I told you Arizona is first in the United States for space vehicle and guided missile manufacturing and second for employment in those areas?

And would you believe “there is no greater or more impactful concentration of space science and engineering professionals in the world than in the state of Arizona. Between the state’s universities, the support we get from companies and institutions across the states, it’s spectacular.”?

If you thought these are my exaggerations, think again. The source of the factoids is Gov. Katie Hobbs while the quote is from Jim Bell, director of Arizona State University’s NewSpace Initiative.

These were among my takeaways after both were among the speakers at the second annual Space Summit held recently in Tempe. (For full transparency, the Arizona Technology Council was a partner of the event).

A day filled with talk about our state’s space ecosystem definitely had me taking stock in what is happening within our borders.

One example supporting the governor’s rankings is Northrop Grumman’s expanding the satellite facility at its Gilbert campus to meet a backlog of orders. The spacecraft being designed, engineered, manufactured and tested there include the JPSS-2, -3 and -4 Earth observation satellites for NASA and NOAA, as well as ESPAStar and ESPASat satellites for other customers.

Workers at Honeywell’s Glendale facility are contributing to fulfillment of a Lockheed Martin contract to support production of NASA’s Orion spacecraft fleet for the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon. Honeywell will develop and produce guidance and navigation systems, command data handling, and display and control products.

On the outskirts of Tucson, Raytheon has its Space Systems Operations—more commonly known as the “space factory.” Clean rooms were created for the manufacturing or testing of interceptor technologies for deployment beyond our atmosphere. Onsite are cryogenic chambers for space-simulated testing and the unique three-axis shock and vibration system that generates space flight frequencies.

Phantom Space in southeast Tucson makes what are considered the world’s most efficient and cost-effective small payload rockets while the company also designs, builds and operates small satellites. The combination of space-bound products can lower the barrier to orbit for customers.

ASU has more than 120 space industry partners

For Bell’s evidence, just consider his home base. ASU has more than 120 space industry partners, more than 40 instrument facilities and laboratories, and is part of more than 25 active space missions. One mission involves the university’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, a system of three cameras that has produced high-resolution black and white images and moderate resolution multi-spectral images of the lunar surface.

Also at ASU is the Mars Space Flight Facility, where researchers are using instruments on spacecraft on the red planet to explore its geology and mineralogy. One such instrument is the Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), a special camera that maps rock mineralogies and detects heat to gather information on the physical and thermal properties of the martian surface.

At Northern Arizona University, researchers are using data from THEMIS to uncover facts about Mars’ volcanic, weathering and alteration processes. They also have played roles in planning the activities of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

The University of Arizona has made its own mark with its team that led the OSIRIS-REx mission that returned to Earth a capsule with rocks and dust from the asteroid Bennu. Also, astronomers from the university helped design and develop the James Webb Space Telescope’s infrared “eyes” that collect light to help get a look at the earliest stars and galaxies, nebulous stellar nurseries and planetary atmospheres.

Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic building space vehicles

Looking toward the future of Arizona’s role in space, Blue Origin has set up shop in Phoenix, where it can support operations for avionics, systems engineering and supply chain management across the space company’s programs. Blue Origin is developing reusable launch vehicles and in-space systems that are safe, low cost and meet the needs of civil, commercial and defense customers.

At Phoenix–Mesa Gateway Airport, a 35,000-square-foot hangar has been completed for Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial space line. That clears the way for the building of Delta-class ships that will be used in flight tests originating from New Mexico’s Spaceport America in mid-2025.

In Sierra Vista, BlackStar Orbital Technologies is creating an engineering and manufacturing facility slated to be operational by 2026. Plans for the site include development and production of a spaceplane-satellite hybrid designed for missions including Earth observation, environmental monitoring and advanced communication solutions for commercial and defense purposes.

To add to this momentum, Hobbs has signed legislation to create the Arizona Space Commission, which will develop a strategic plan to promote and expand space, aeronautics and aviation in the state. Commission members also are charged with supporting workforce development training to advance emerging technologies needed in space exploration.

Despite what Capt. James T. Kirk told many of us when we were growing up, space is not the final frontier. For Arizona, it’s the new frontier.

Steven Zylstra is president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council.

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