Colorado firm's high-tech sensors put to use in telescopes, satellites
By Ned Hunter | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: June 9, 2013
A 30-foot telescope in Texas measures the rotations of individual galaxies light years away. - A NASA satellite scheduled for launch in 2016 will measure Arctic ice masses, cloud height and vegetation. - A space-based observatory telescope to be launched in 2018 will be used to try to prove, or disprove, the Big Bang theory. The relationship?
Each of the measuring systems, aiming devices, cameras and telescopes inside these units deliver clear images because of sensors built by the downtown Colorado Springs company called Blue Line Engineering.
Now, the firm is involved in a Department of Defense project "that could become critical to national defense on a very big scale," said Greg Ames, founder and chief executive officer.
Blue Line received a military contract in April for work that extends to January 2015, said 1st Lt. Austen Bryan, systems engineer in the Advanced Technology Research Department of the Missile Defense System Agency at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. Bryan said Blue Line's work will improve existing technology that originated during the Reagan era with the airborne LASER program system, which was retired in February 2012.
"They work on digital fine position sensors - electronics to very accurately know the location of whatever it is supposed to be sensing," Bryan said.
Most of Blue Line's work centers on custom position sensors that control mirrors in telescopes and optical devices. The sensors are in ultra-critical missions for NASA and the Department of Defense.
Taking photos or images of objects from a long distance is difficult because the camera or telescope lens cannot always be held steady. There is also the issue of atmospheric distortion that adds blur and jitter, even if the camera is strapped down, Ames said. His company's sensors make minute adjustments of the mirrors that capture images. Those adjustments make the collected images clear.
"We invent the sensor that keeps those images from jittering," he said.
The sensors let the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at the McDonald Observatory in Texas take clear images of space. The telescope's 433-inch mirror is not one massive piece of glass. Rather, its 30-foot aperture is made from 91 hexagonal-shaped reflective segments that must maintain proper alignment to each other or the images collected will be unusable.
Blue Line also has made sensors for NASA's ICESat 2 project due for launch in 2016. ICESat is the acronym for Ice, Cloud and Elevation Satellite. It will carry a precision laser-ranging system that will calculate the thickness of Arctic ice sheets and topographic features. The estimated value of the contract for Blue Line is around $1 million.
Blue Line's precision focus and alignment sensors will guide the infrared camera for the James Webb Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018. The Webb, which replaces the Hubble Space Telescope, will be positioned on the far side of the moon.
Beyond the U.S., Blue Line is working with Backnang, Germany-based Tesat Spacecom, manufacturing sensors for its newest LASER communications terminals that will transfer data between satellites at extremely high rates.
"The pointing accuracy is extremely critical," Ames said, "and that is what we do."
In the beginning
As a kid, Ames watched "Lost in Space" and other space and science fiction shows. Still, he never thought he'd work with NASA.
"When I joined the Navy, I didn't know a transistor from a piece of gravel," said Ames, who studied electronics in the service from 1968 to 1973.
After the Navy, Ames got a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs while working at Kaman Instrumentation, which makes industrial position sensors.
Ames was with Kaman from 1979 to 1994. It was there he began designing the type of sensors he makes at Blue Line. One measures wobble and balance in centrifuges, a machine that spins rapidly to separate gas particles.
"Then somewhere along the line I developed a sensor system specifically for fast steering mirrors - those used in the night vision systems for the Apache helicopters," he said.
Ames founded Blue Line as a private company in June 1994, partly because Kaman moved its operations to Connecticut.
"But the main reason was I wanted the freedom to pursue a wider range of technologies and applications," Ames said.
By 1999, Blue Line was making large sensor systems for telescopes. In 2001, the company began working with Raytheon on a Department of Defense project and NASA. But in 2009, Blue Line nearly closed when the government and aerospace industry halted projects.
The cutbacks caused Ames to remove himself from the company's health insurance plan, cut his salary by 25 percent and lay off one employee.
"We took a real beating for about four years, but we seem to have turned things around, and the future looks very promising," he said.
The company has two part-time and five full-time employees, including Ames. Two potential contracts could mean more hiring.
Withstanding harshness of space
Inside Blue Line's Colorado Avenue shop, Glen Durbin uses a 200 digital times Meiji microscope and tweezers to assemble sensors.
The company's production manager, Durbin often works with chip resistors as small as 70,000th of an inch in length. Durbin must use special epoxies and glue that can withstand space; otherwise, the product could fail or the fasteners could create a gas that could cloud or damage a nearby mirror or optic lenses. The hardest part of his job is winding tiny coils of wire that are the working end of the sensors, he said. It can take as long as 20 weeks to get one electronic component part, so too many mistakes or scrapped parts could delay a project.
Nearly all of Blue Line's work is in space-based applications. Projects involving astronomical observatories and NASA usually last four months and often times as long as two years. A Kansas City, Mo., native, Durbin has worked on several projects, including the ICESat 2 satellite. He has learned to handle the pressure of helping to construct multibillion-dollar projects that cannot be fixed by walking outside to the garage.
"Anyone involved in any high-cost, high-visibility project shares that anxiety and the thrill," he said.
It can take several days to assemble an entire sensor unit. Once completed, each sensor is stressed through a series of vibration, pressure and temperature tests performed in and out of a vacuum.
Because there is no wind or air flow in space, parts must be able to dissipate their own heat at a rate that keeps them from failing. Equipment that needs fans to cool parts on earth would overheat and malfunction in space, Ames said.
Extreme temperature changes in space also can cause parts to fail. Blue Line's sensors are tested to withstand ambient temperatures from minus 40 degrees Celsius to plus 70 degrees Celsius.
Product testing occurs over several hours for several days, Ames said. The sensors are monitored for drops or spikes in output.. If the sensor passes, it is bolted to a plate to stabilize it, then placed in a vacuum chamber that removes nearly all the atmosphere surrounding it.
"Then if there are any trapped bubbles," Ames said, "the sensor will burst, leak or cause other damage."
At the end of 2011, Blue Line won an award for jitter suppression, or line of sight stabilization, from the Missile Defense Agency, Ames said.
Bryan said the military selected Blue Line because of its successes. "What they are making is better than most others out there," he said.