Energy Department Emphasizing Roles in Supporting Space Industry

 In Defense, Energy, Space

Undersecretary of Energy for Science Paul Dabbar said the depart­ment is work­ing to empha­size its research capa­bil­i­ties to the space indus­try in areas from rad-hard­ened elec­tron­ics to quan­tum com­put­ing. Credit: Dept. of Energy

HOUSTON — The Department of Energy, whose inter­ac­tion with the space indus­try has large­ly been in nuclear power sys­tems, is work­ing to broad­en its role by empha­siz­ing its over­all research capa­bil­i­ties.

In a Nov. 21 speech at the SpaceCom Expo here, Paul Dabbar, the Undersecretary of Energy for Science, said the research labs of the depart­ment offered capa­bil­i­ties for the space indus­try that range from quan­tum com­put­ing net­works to astron­o­my and plan­e­tary defense.

“I believe that human­i­ty is at the cusp of major move­ments around inno­va­tion in six par­tic­u­lar areas,” he said in his speech, with space one of those areas along­side arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, genomics and others. “I think we are very much on the cusp of making major strides in what we can do and what we’re going to be able to learn.”

Dabbar said the Energy Department is work­ing on about 80 projects with NASA and others in the space com­mu­ni­ty. In an inter­view after his speech, he said he’s trying to high­light those exist­ing part­ner­ships as well as seek new oppor­tu­ni­ties in space for the depart­ment to be involved.

“I think the real­i­ty is, of the $18 bil­lion or so a year of R&D spend­ing that we have, most people don’t under­stand the breadth of what we cur­rent­ly do,” he said. “When you have 60,000 researchers run­ning around doing things, no one knows 100% of all the dif­fer­ent research strings that are going on.”

“Space is prob­a­bly one that’s on the lower end of aware­ness,” he added, “which is cer­tain­ly why I wanted to come here and talk a bit about this to a broad­er audi­ence.”

One of those areas is in quan­tum net­works, whose ben­e­fits include secure com­mu­ni­ca­tions. In his speech, he dis­cussed estab­lish­ing the first “entan­gled quan­tum net­work” in the world with sites in Chicago and New York. That net­work, he sug­gest­ed, could be extend­ed to space. “We’re work­ing on the tech­nol­o­gy to build an entan­gled quan­tum net­work con­nec­tion to the ISS,” he said. “We have the abil­i­ty to build out a quan­tum net­work that goes into space.”

In the later inter­view, Dabbar said extend­ing a quan­tum net­work to space was a long-term goal of the department’s work in this area, rather than a near-term appli­ca­tion. “There’s a lot of tech­nol­o­gy to get from here to there, but what I wanted to men­tion is that the pos­si­bil­i­ties we’re look­ing it,” he said. “It’s still some time off, but I did want to men­tion that this is clear­ly a research string that we have and it is clear­ly aspi­ra­tional as we build out the over­all tech­nol­o­gy.”

In the near term, Dabbar empha­sized the department’s capa­bil­i­ties in areas like radi­a­tion-hard­ened elec­tron­ics that it can make avail­able to space com­pa­nies. “We would wel­come engage­ment with the com­mer­cial sector in that par­tic­u­lar area, which is rel­a­tive­ly min­i­mal,” he said.

The department’s labs do com­mer­cial work on a cost-reim­bursable basis, with about 10% of the department’s over­all R&D spend­ing paid for by com­pa­nies. “If there is a pri­vate sector entity that wants to do test­ing, for exam­ple, for rad-hard­en­ing of micro­elec­tron­ics for space, they don’t need to go build a lab to do the radi­a­tion tests,” he said. “They can come to us.”

Part of the Energy Department’s out­reach on space includes work­ing with other gov­ern­ment agen­cies. The depart­ment is not part of the National Space Council, but Dabbar said the depart­ment does have a “con­stant dia­logue” with the coun­cil and agen­cies that are a part of it.

One exam­ple of that, he said, is con­cerns the effect satel­lite mega­con­stel­la­tions like Starlink will have on astron­o­my. The Department of Energy, which funds some astron­o­my research, is sup­port­ing devel­op­ment of an instru­ment for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile that will be the largest dig­i­tal camera built for astro­nom­i­cal appli­ca­tions.

“One of the things we want to make cer­tain we have aware­ness of is that the lumi­nos­i­ty asso­ci­at­ed a number of the low-alti­tude cube­sat con­stel­la­tions can affect the vis­i­bil­i­ty of what’s up in the sky, which affects tele­scopes,” he said, citing as an exam­ple an image from a ground-based tele­scope show­ing streaks from a set of Starlink satel­lites launched ear­li­er in November.

The depart­ment, he said, was engaged with NASA and the National Science Foundation, and the broad­er National Space Council, on those con­cerns. The goal of that effort is to ensure the broad­er space com­mu­ni­ty “under­stands the impact of that, both in terms of sci­ence but also just in terms of aes­thet­ics of seeing the night sky.”

Source: SpaceNews

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