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Air Force, NASA Satellite Launched Last Night from ODU-Affiliated Wallops Facility

A test tactical satellite that launched May 19 from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Virginia's Eastern Shore could be the first of several multimillion-dollar launches at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.

And as other contracts get negotiated with public- and private-sector agencies interested in launching satellites, it could end up reinforcing the wisdom of Old Dominion University's early involvement in the creation of a spaceport catering to private-sector satellite launches.

"We rose to the occasion at ODU when we invested in this," said Oktay Baysal, dean of the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, and himself an aerospace engineer. "We have been waiting for activities to pick up for eight to 10 years now."

The Air Force and NASA conducted the May 19 launch in conjunction with the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA), which oversees the ODU-affiliated Virginia Space Flight Center at the Wallops Flight Facility.

The Tactical Satellite-3 (TacSat-3) features an onboard processor, which will provide real-time data to a combatant commander in a theater of interest, according to NASA and Air Force officials.

The $60-million spacecraft helps meet the military's need for a responsive, flexible and affordable satellite system operating in space. The payload consists of three components - the Advanced Responsive Tactically Effective Military Imaging Spectrometer hyperspectral image, the Office of Naval Research's Satellite Communications Package and a space avionics experiment.

One of the payloads affixed to the rocket is a research project, the HawkSat 1 microsatellite, produced by the Hawk Institute of Space Sciences at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The Mid-Atlantic Institute for Space Technology (MIST), led by ODU engineering faculty member Wayne Woodhams, contributed research and funding to the project.

MARS operates out of Wallops Island, which has seen more than 15,000 satellite launches since NASA founded the facility in 1945.

In the mid-1990s, plans were drafted to use the historic Eastern Shore facility to pursue commercial satellite-launch business on behalf of the commonwealth of Virginia.

Created in 1995, the VCSFA has as its mission to disseminate knowledge pertaining to scientific and technological research and development to public and private clients, including, but not limited to, knowledge in the area of space flight.

With that knowledge the VCSFA hopes to promote economic development throughout Virginia, especially on the Eastern Shore.

ODU funded two positions at the time the VCSFA was created, including that of executive director, which is still occupied by engineering professor Billie Reed.

Baysal said events such as last night's TacSat-3 launch, as well as a future, multimillion-dollar contract to resupply the International Space Station, won by Northern Virginia's Orbital Science Corp., could ultimately prove the value of the university's original investment in the spaceport.

"A big boost came in when NASA floated the contract for resupply of the International Space Station," Baysal said. "This contract will result in retooling the launch pad, which in turn will create jobs and economic development."

In addition to the commercial launch of private satellites, MARS and MIST have an educational component, particularly through conducting space camps. And the Wallops Flight Facility could also be a site for the potentially lucrative business of space tourism - wealthy individuals or groups that are willing to pay to experience a zero-gravity environment.

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport is one of four nationally licensed commercial spaceports by the Federal Aviation Administration to send rockets into orbit. MARS is also one of two commercial spaceports authorized under the SALT II Treaty to launch excess ballistic missile assets.

This article was posted on: May 20, 2009

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