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Chasing the Moon: Deep space exploration involves Rochester companies

Jul 17, 2019

For decades, L3 Harris Technologies has been involved with NASA, including the development of the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.

It’s yet another connection to Rochester’s long association with a variety of space programs. The 50th anniversary this month of the moon landing is being celebrated at L3 Harris as well as at Eastman Kodak, since Harris’s Space and Airborne Systems business has its roots in the photography and related work that Kodak did in the early days of the space program.

L3 Harris, which has a major presence in Rochester, has continued to work on technologies related to space science, including development not only of the Chandra Observatory -- which is still in orbit, lasting far beyond its original five-year design -- but other space telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch in 2021.

Keith Havey, a senior systems engineer with L3 Harris, has been working on NASA-related projects since the earlier years of the space shuttle program.

He remembers being inspired by Apollo 11 and the moon landing, and with that perspective, he said it’s likely some of his company’s younger engineers don’t quite realize how a big a deal that accomplishment was.

“In some ways, I’m not sure they fully appreciate how risky it was and how challenging it was technically to pull off that fast, and what happened in a mere 10 years,” Havey said.

L3 Harris is also involved in NASA’s upcoming Orion project. The company will provide the astronaut audio system for this first human deep-space exploration mission. That work will be done in Harris’ facilities in Florida.

Havey is enthusiastic about the U.S. returning to a manned spaceflight program.

“It’s great to send robots, especially to places that you can’t safely go with people at this time with our current technology, but manned space flight is really to me, it feels like the future, I mean it’s the past, 50 years, but it’s also the future of mankind in my mind,” Havey said.

There are other Rochester companies involved in programs related to space exploration, including  Stamper Technology, a small high-tech company started several years ago by a former Kodak researcher, Bruce Ha, who worked on the development of that company’s Picture CD technology.

More recently, Ha has been working on technology that involves the storage of immense amounts of data on nickel foil. Ha has used that nearly indestructible media to store 30 million pages of information, including a full version of Wikipedia and a digital library of human languages.

He is hoping to get that information launched into space. Why is that important?

“What if we had a big solar flare that just started going crazy? We can’t control that, your data would be gone. All the electronic, all magnetic media will be gone; your hard drives, your tapes, they’re all gone, what are you going to do about it?” Ha asked.

Ha demonstrated just how durable the nickel foil disc is by holding a small, powerful torch against it.

“So this is going to put out about 500 degrees of heat, by using this torch, but I’m going to torch it, and you can see, if I were to do this with paper, wood, it will start burning, but now I’m putting very intense heat over this nickel plate … there’s all kinds of information (on the disc) right now, and it is surviving,”

The initial attempt by an Israeli space company to land the special discs of data on the moon earlier this year ended with a crash landing, but Ha is hopeful another company will be able to accomplish that in the next year or so.

Eventually, he envisions the possibility of an unmanned spacecraft carrying this information about humanity on its solar sails as it travels out into deep space. He says theoretically, that nickel foil collection of data about Earth could last for billions of years.

L3 Harris produced this video about the company's involvement with the Chandra X-ray Observatory (with comments by senior systems engineer Keith Havey):

Bruce Ha of Stamper Technology demonstrates the durability of the nickel foil technology that could preserve data for billions of years: