KinetX Aerospace — Providing Visionary, Highly Prized Engineering in Support of Space- and Earth-Based Endeavors



Published 26 May 2003 By Hal Mattern
The Arizona Republic
Whether Guiding a Satellite or Navigating a Probe to Pluto, KinetX’s Success Has Been Largely Defined by…Getting There The planet, Pluto, discovered 73 years ago by an astronomer at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, now has another Arizona connection.  KinetX, Inc., a privately held Tempe company with 35 employees, has been selected to navigate a spacecraft on the first NASA mission to Pluto, in 2006.  The goal of the mission is to study Pluto, and the findings may help determine whether it really is a planet or just a hunk of icy space junk. The company also won a contract to navigate a spacecraft to Mercury next year.

KinetX is the first commercial company selected to handle navigation for a NASA deep-space exploration mission.  The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology has always performed that function.

“We’re the first on the block,” said Bobby Williams, a former Jet Propulsion Lab engineer who now is director of space navigation and flight dynamics at KinetX.  “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

KinetX is no stranger to space programs.  The company was founded in 1992 by a group of Lockheed engineers with experience working on satellites.  The firm’s first contract was with Motorola to work on the Iridium satellite telephone project.

The company also worked with Spectrum Astro on a space-based missile detection system.

Waiting on authorities After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it joined with another East Valley firm, Cogitek Corp., to develop a remote-control system that allow ground crews to take over operation of planes if the pilots lose control.  They submitted their plan to the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration but have not received a response.

KinetX President Kjell Stakkestad said the two deep-space projects represent a new direction for the company and already have raised its profile.

“We used to work behind the scenes, but we are in the forefront now,” Stakkestad said.  “We’re getting offers to partner on other projects.  Other stuff is coming open because of the potential notoriety from these missions.”

Mission to Mercury The Mercury spacecraft is expected to launch in March and orbit and photograph that planet.  It will be the first Mercury mission since Mariner 10 flew past the planet three times in 1974 and 1975.

Even though a spacecraft could reach the planet in a few months, the mission will take five years because it requires two Venus flybys and two Mercury flybys for the spacecraft to match Mercury’s orbital velocity.

In the Pluto mission, it will take nine or 10 years for the spacecraft to reach the planet and its moon, Chiron.

Pluto has always intrigued astronomers, and doubts have been raised as to whether it is a planet.  Some astronomers contend it is an object from the Kuiper Belt, a disk-shaped region, past the orbit of Neptune that contains several small icy bodies.  Some scientists think the Kuiper Belt is the source of such things as Halley’s Comet, among others.

Getting it there In the mission, called the New Horizons, the spacecraft will explore Pluto and its moon, and then will fly by at least one Kuiper Belt object.

KinetX will navigate the spacecraft and operate its camera.

“Our job is to make sure it gets there,” Stakkestad said.

KinetX was able to move into deep-space navigation after hiring Williams, who spent more than 24 years at the Jet Propulsion Lab and has a strong track record on NASA projects.  He led the team that landed a satellite on the asteroid Eros in 2001, the first time such a feat was accomplished.

The Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, which is running the New Horizons mission to Pluto for NASA, chose KinetX largely because of Williams and other experienced staff members.

“Right Software” “We had worked closely with Bobby for several years,” said the Carnegie Institution’s Sean Solomon, who was hired by Johns Hopkins to lead the Mercury mission.  “He changed to KinetX, and we stayed with him.  We made our decision based on our belief that KinetX had the right staff and the right software to do the job.”

NASA has been planning for years to transfer some of its technology to the private sector and open its missions to more competition.  The KinetX contracts are seen as a breakthrough in those efforts.

But that doesn’t mean other private companies are going to rush in and compete with Jet Propulsion Lab for deep-space navigation contracts.

“NASA has moved the technology into the commercial sector, and it is certainly open to anyone who wants to try it, but you have to know how to use it,” Williams said.  “It takes years of experience, so we are uniquely positioned.”

Status quo changing The selection of KinetX has led to some jealousy within the space contracting industry.  Williams said the company has been “getting some heat” for beating out the Jet Propulsion Lab for the jobs.

“A lot of people don’t like what we are doing,” he said.  “It changes the status quo.”

But Solomon said the fact that a private company, especially one as small as KinetX, can do the job is good for the space industry.  Because the company is small and has low overhead, he said, it was able to offer a lower bid for the project.

“I think the competition is healthy,” Solomon said.

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