Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Brownsville, STARGATE and SpaceX

          By Allison Rae Hannigan

The origin story of the Spacecraft Tracking and Astronomical Research into Gigahertz Astrophysical Transient Emission (STARGATE) venture between SpaceX and the Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy (CARA) at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) in Brownsville, Texas informs as much about the value of radio astronomy and launching satellites as it does about public private partnerships and how to invest in human potential.

STARGATE sponsors include SpaceX, the University of Texas System (an association of eight Texas academic and six health care institutions), the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, the Brownsville Economic Development Council and the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation. The facility is intended to provide students and faculty access to RF technologies widely used in spaceflight operations, will include satellite and spacecraft tracking facilities and was initially proposed by UTRGV professor Rick Jenet in 2012 as part of a package to increase the likelihood of attracting SpaceX to build a launch site in the area. Graphic c/o UofT Brownsville

STARGATE will allow students and faculty to share access to technologies used in tracking of spacecraft and satellites that SpaceX will be launching from Texas shores. STARGATE will also be developing next generation astronomy tools and bringing them to the NewSpace ecosystem.

Brownsville has been described as economically distressed at best, and "God-forsaken" at worst. The southernmost city in the continental US, and sitting right on the border with Mexico, Brownsville seems an unlikely genesis for space activities. Two years ago, Elon Musk and SpaceX selected Boca Chica Beach near Brownsville as the location for its new launch complex, the first commercial orbital launch site in the world. Construction is already underway, and a first launch projected for 2018.

Rick Jenet in Brownsville on April 19th, 2016. Photo c/o Brownsville Herald 
Enter UTRGV physics and astronomy professor, Dr. Fredrick “Rick” Jenet. Credentialed in physics from MIT and Caltech, with a drive to make everyone around him be the best they can be, and a desire to explore space, Dr. Jenet could have had his pick of teaching at any university.

Yet, he chose Brownsville over 11 years ago at the suggestion of his mentor, Professor Richard Price, a renowned physicist who was on faculty there at the time. Dr. Jenet visited, and was attracted to the potential he saw to impact the lives of local students in a positive way, to help them break through barriers using science education.

The real story behind STARGATE begins with Dr. Jenet’s vision to engage high school students in STEM education by speaking their language, relating science with popular culture, such as science fiction and video games. He likes to say that the acronym for STARGATE was “backro-nymed,” meaning they figured out the abbreviation after choosing the name, which is based on a popular science fiction movie and television series.

Dr. Jenet started outreach with local high schools, and soon founded CARA along with the Arecibo Remote Command Center (ARCC) at the university. ARCC allows students from the high school level and higher to perform research at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico and other observatories around the world.

"ARCC Scholars" working in the ARCC control room in Brownsville. Students involved in the program perform real observations, analyzing data taken during these observations, and present their results at major scientific conferences. Photo c/o UofT Brownsville

In addition to the college students participating in ARCC, they also have a 21st Century Astronomy Ambassadors program to allow top high school students to have an opportunity to work in astrophysics. ARCC Scholars have discovered pulsars, and a double neutron star system, which is one of only 10 ever discovered by anyone, anywhere.

CARA develops radio frequency-based technologies for space exploration, and attracts and trains the next generation of scientists and engineers, especially benefitting youth from typically under-represented minority groups.

As outlined in the UTRGV Office of Strategic Analysis and Institutional Reporting document under the title, "UTRGV’s Fall 2015 Enrollment in Perspective," UTRGV ranks 9 of 10 in terms of headcount among all Texas 4-year public universities, but is ranked first in terms of Hispanic enrollment, with an almost 90% Hispanic population.

And, as outlined in the October 2014 American Association of Physics Focus On article, "Hispanic Participation among Bachelor’s in Physical Sciences and Engineering," UTRGV is placed among top 10 producers of Hispanic physicists in the US. In 2012, only 21 Bachelor Degrees in Astronomy out of 448 were earned by Hispanics in the US, and UTRGV alone graduates about five physics and astronomy majors per year.

Ms. Alma Guerrero-Miller, the assistant director of special programs at CARA, has described the typical border region issue of highly skilled workers leaving for economic reasons as ‘exporting brains.’ Unlike the Canadian border with the US, which concentrates most of the population and economic activity, the border with Mexico is economically depressed and has real challenges engaging, educating, training and retaining students in STEM fields. A former political consultant, Ms. Guerrero-Miller met Dr. Jenet when he started his outreach to local high schools. Her husband was the first high school teacher in the Rio Grande Valley to teach astronomy.

One student, Jose “Joey” Martinez, working independently from efforts by Dr. Jenet to woo SpaceX, went to the first public forum to tell SpaceX why they should come to Brownsville. He talks about his remarkeable achievements and desire to keep working in his astrophysics field at home as can be seen from the video above. It's worth noting he UTRGV was, until last year, known as the University of Texas – Brownsville (UTB).

It's also worth nothing that, before Dr. Jenet’s involvement, officials from the university approached SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to propose a joint venture, and he reportedly told them, “I build rockets. I don’t do education.” Of course, the implication was that he was not interested.

From their inception, CARA and ARCC have provided a model for training up a pipeline of STEM-ready workers from the region, and Dr. Jenet saw an opportunity to extend this model by working with SpaceX to create STARGATE. The goal of the collaboration is to provide students and faculty access to RF technologies that are used in spaceflight operations such as satellite and spacecraft tracking.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Photo c/o Profit Confidential
Students and faculty will have access to "cutting-edge" facilities providing both academic and commercial value. Grants of over $10Mln US ($12.98Mln CDN)  have been awarded to create and house STARGATE in a new building to be co-located with the SpaceX command and control center two miles from the launch site. The Boca Chica Village land purchased for the center has been re-named “STARGATE” subdivision.

Dr. Jenet explains that equipment used for spacecraft tracking and telemetry is ‘basically a radio telescope.’ The STARGATE faculty and students will be developing RF Algorithms for tracking spacecraft, and possibly a phased-array antenna system to replace fixed dish satellite tracking communications systems.

The commercial applications that this type of leading edge technology promises has attracted the attention of another partner, the Houston Tech Center, a top accelerator in the nation. Ms. Geurroro-Miller states that HTC has created an economic impact worth $2.6Bln US ($3.4Bln CDN). The large incubator/accelerator is partnering with STARGATE to help develop the economy of the Rio Grande Valley region as well.

Approximately 4.5Mln US ($5.8Mln CDN) have been invested by both the Texas Emerging Technology Fund and the University of Texas system. A further $1.2Mln US ($1.6Mln CDN) grant from the US Economic Development Administration has also been provided.

Allison Rae Hannigan.
The very first pledge of support came from a local organization, the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation, which offered a $500K US ($649K CDN) incentive in 2012 to encourage SpaceX to build it’s launch site in the area.

Allison Rae Hannigan, is an impassioned space industry specialist focused on development opportunities, marketing, communications and business related to microgravity research. 

She is also a free-lance consultant who has helped set up and manage email marketing campaigns, newsletters, and customer relationship management applications. 

She can be reached at

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