Kirtland research facility built to facilitate space-related projects

An Air Force Research Laboratory poster is seen at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., on May 21, 2020.


By KEVIN ROBINSON-AVILA | Albuquerque Journal, N.M. | Published: November 21, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — A new $4 million, 7,000-square-foot laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base will boost Air Force Research Laboratory development of high-tech components for spacecraft.

The AFRL began construction of its new Deployable Structures Laboratory — or "DeSel" — in December to provide more space with special features to test materials and components free from vibration and other interference, said Brent Taft, program manager for the Spacecraft Component Technologies branch of AFRL's Space Vehicles Directorate.

The AFRL held an inaugural event Oct. 29 for the building, which offers scientists and engineers a huge, open high-bay space to spread out massive structures for testing. The facility's flat floor is specially built to isolate activities there from all outside vibration.

"It's more or less a big box where testing can occur free from interference," Taft told the Journal. "That's important to measure and evaluate the light weight structures we build for spacecraft. You won't get any of the vibrations at DeSel that you see at other facilities from trucks or aircraft."

The heating, ventilation and cooling, or HVAC, system, controls air flow to eliminate disturbance.

"The HVAC system works like in an operating room to prevent perturbation," Taft said. "It eliminates drafts or turbulence from air flow."

The AFRL is aggressively upgrading structures and components for satellites and systems to lower costs, increase durability and improve performance in space as part of current efforts to modernize the country's space defense technology. It's using new lightweight, flexible materials for components like solar arrays that can be rolled up tight and stored in small compartments to later spring out to full length once in space.

"Things like solar arrays, antennas and booms need to be stowed up tight in launch vehicles," Taft said. "They deploy into huge structures often the size of a typical airliner wing span once in space. Those are complex mechanisms that need special test conditions before they are launched on spacecraft."

DeSel will provide ideal conditions for components built to deploy on AFRL's Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstration and Research, or SSPIDR, project, scheduled to launch in 2023 to beam solar power from space to Earth, said Col. Eric Felt, director of the Space Vehicles Directorate.

"I am thrilled with the capabilities and game-changing research that will be carried on in DeSel," Felt said in a statement. "...Some of the first structures we look forward to testing in this new lab are those required for our (SSPIDR) project."

DeSel is one of many infrastructure upgrades underway as the military stands up the new U.S. Space Force.

A 25,000-square-foot Space Control Laboratory opened this month at Kirtland to consolidate multiple laboratories into a single place for about 65 personnel. And a 2,800-square-foot addition to one of the Missile Warning/Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Branch laboratories will open in December to co-locate people working on space sensor technologies.

Infrastructure modernization could improve Albuquerque's chance to land the military's new Space Command. Albuquerque is one of six cities competing to host Spacecom's permanent headquarters.

Two new huge development projects outside the base could also boost Albuquerque's chances. The Orion Group, a subsidiary of East Coast aerospace company Theia Group Inc., announced plans last week to build a huge manufacturing and assembly facility just west of Kirtland. And Thunderbird Kirtland Development LLC is planning a 70-acre mixed-use development in the same area. Both projects are expected to launch early next year.


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