Kentucky is poised to soar in space science

Kris Kimel, founder and president of Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., thinks space science now is about where computer science was before the 1980s.

Back then, few people saw much need for computers. They were large, expensive machines designed for specific applications. The invention of microchips and personal computers changed everything.

Conducting research in space has always been an expensive, complicated process that wasn’t practical for many scientists and corporations. But that is changing, and an organization called Kentucky Space is right in the middle of that change.

Kentucky Space is a public-private consortium that includes KSTC; Lexington-based Belcan Engineering; the University of Kentucky; the University of Louisville; the Kentucky Community and Technical College System; and Morehead State, Western Kentucky and Murray State universities.

Space shuttle Discovery left April 5 on a trip to the International Space Station with two CubeLab modules designed and made by Kentucky Space and NanoRacks LLC, a Houston company. In November, another NASA mission will carry CubeSat research satellites from Kentucky Space.

Free-floating CubeSat satellites are metal cubes the size of tissue boxes that weigh about two pounds and contain small research devices. CubeLabs look similar, but they also carry laboratory experiments. They plug into a NanoRacks device on the space station that provides power and transmits data to earth.

The standards for much of this cube technology were developed by Bob Twiggs, a former head of the Stanford University Space and Systems Development Laboratory who now teaches at Morehead.

Kentucky Space/NanoRacks developed this “plug-and-play” lab technology and pitched it to NASA in late 2008. Nothing happened, though, until the Obama administration decided to take space research in a more entrepreneurial direction. Suddenly, Kentucky Space/NanoRacks became one of 11 organizations with a NASA lab partnership.

Now that standardized technology has made space research easier and cheaper, Kimel, the head of Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., thinks more scientists and companies will want to do it. “We see ourselves designing and developing small, entrepreneurial space platforms,” he said. “The advantage we have is that we have real estate on the space station.”

Kentucky Space expects to manage four or five missions this year, and eight or 10 each year beginning in 2011. UK and Morehead have facilities to monitor clients’ experiments in space.

What’s important to understand about this space research is that it isn’t about space. It’s about how earthly cells and molecules react and change in the micro-gravity environment of space. The economic and social implications of that research could be huge.

For example, most medical research about how humans react to micro-gravity has been focused on preventing harm to astronauts. But space could have beneficial effects on cells that might lead to more effective treatments for various diseases and conditions. Research already is being conducted on the space station to see how micro-gravity changes bacteria, which could lead to more effective vaccines for dangerous salmonella and staph infections.

“What could the applications of all of this be? The answer is, we don’t know, which is the foundation for all science,” Kimel said. “Many scientific breakthroughs come when you’re looking for something else.”

Kentucky Space revenue will pay for research at Kentucky universities and, eventually, more space-education programs in public schools. Kimel thinks Kentucky Space’s growth could lead to spin-off companies in Kentucky and job opportunities for future space-science students.

“It’s a next-generation industry that is part of a rapidly growing field with great potential for developing wealth and knowledge,” Kimel said. “And we could see a major part of that develop right here in Kentucky.”

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