In the High Desert of New Mexico, Technology Moves at Light Speed

June 01, 2016 in Defense, Space

The Starfire Optical Range sits nestled in the high desert of New Mexico, its shiny collection of domes distinguishing it from the barren landscape. Kirtland Air Force Base boundaries offer plenty of privacy, as do seemingly endless stretches of sand and sagebrush.

At the center of the hillside observatory is a powerful black and white telescope that comes into view once the largest dome collapses and rotates out of sight and heavy metal doors open on an inner protective shell.

Boeing supports the U.S. Air Force engineers and scientists who experiment here with lasers in conjunction with the 3.5-meter (11.4-foot) telescope to better monitor man-made objects in orbit, much of it space debris. As satellites get smaller and the number of space objects increases dramatically, research in imaging and identification of the space objects is paramount.

The Air Force conducts research in laser guide star adaptive optics, beam control and space object identification. A laser guide star is an "artificial star" used to correct for atmospheric turbulence, enabling high-resolution imaging through the telescope. The laser guide star is created by focusing a laser in the atmosphere and using the return light to sense and correct the turbulence that would otherwise preclude the high-resolution imaging, said Harold Schall, Boeing Laser & Electro-Optical Systems chief engineer and a Senior Technical Fellow. "You get a sample of light that goes off a series of mirrors and into an optics room where all the magic happens," Schall said.

Starfire Optical Range is just part of the high-tech community surrounding Boeing in and around Albuquerque. While a number of contractors work with Air Force personnel and military at the observatory—perched south of New Mexico's largest city at 6,200 feet (1,880 meters) above sea level, not far from where the Sandia and Manzano mountains intersect—another 85 people are assigned to the Boeing Albuquerque site, occupying a sprawling white building that houses 13 different labs, all of which is located on the northern edge of town at 5,500 feet (1,670 meters) altitude.

This elevated, southwestern region of the United States offers a melting pot of scientists and engineers with advanced degrees and industry credentials, a populace that has been in place since the onset of World War II.

They fill up laboratories and research facilities for different organizations throughout the area, continually looking for ways to enhance modern civilization, space navigation and military technologies used to protect freedom. Boeing has a significant presence.

"It's a great place for productivity," said David DeYoung, Laser & Electro-Optical Systems director, Boeing Albuquerque, of the desert's advantages. "It has the dry climate, high elevation and available test ranges."

Sandia National Laboratory and the Air Force Research Laboratory, which develop war-fighting capabilities and technologies, are located inside the 57,000-acre (23,000-hectare) Kirtland Air Force Base.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the first atomic bomb was created and which remains one of the world's largest scientific institutions, is 100 miles (160 kilo¬meters) north. White Sands Missile Range, the largest American military installation anywhere, is 150 miles (240 kilometers) south.

Alamogordo, the first nuclear weapons test site, and Holloman Air Force Base, which has been home to some of the U.S. military's most advanced aircraft, are 200 miles (320 kilometers) to the southeast.

With so many resources close at hand, project crossover that involves Boeing and its desert neighbors is a regular occurrence, according to Mario Alleva, Boeing Embedded Systems manager.

"It's a very tightknit community of technology in New Mexico," Alleva said. "You work with people for decades. I've worked with people at the Air Force Research Lab since I was 18. I still coordinate with them."

At Starfire Optical Range, a red warning sign flashes outside the doorway to the telescope whenever a laser is in use. A floor below, SOR employees occupy a control room and operate camera and adaptive optics systems. Clocks are set to Greenwich Mean Time, the benchmark for global connectivity. A test director is in charge. A safety officer is on duty. A spotter stands outside and watches overhead for approaching airplanes. Boeing employees bring a strong sense of purpose to the observatory and its advanced research.

"People here feel a real ownership in the site," said Josh Kann, a Boeing senior physicist and Associate Technical Fellow. "It's extremely interesting work. It's extremely challenging work. These are cutting-edge programs. You definitely understand there's a need for this kind of technology."

In this rugged landscape, they are not always alone when in pursuit of their high-tech breakthroughs. Boeing employees often work late at night at the observatory and are encouraged to carry flashlights when getting in and out of their vehicles during the warmer seasons—otherwise they might not spot the rattlesnakes which show up from time to time on the asphalt parking areas.

"You need a flashlight for safety, just to get to your car, to see where it is when you're working at night, and there are snakes up there," Schall said. "It's not like they're swarming all over the place, but you have to be careful not to step on one."

Twenty-five miles away, Boeing Albuquerque has a much more urban feel to its workplace. The block-long building anchors the middle of a commercial strip mall, surrounded by hotels, restaurants and medical clinics. What goes on inside, however, is hardly everyday activity. Prototypes of satellites and weapon concepts are on display in various hallways. Current laser and sensor projects get full attention behind closed doors, where clean rooms, or debris-free areas, are cordoned off in labs by dangling plastic ribbons. Lasers require clean optics. The need for precision here can't be overstated.

In the middle of a pristine lab, Isaac Neal, guidance navigation control engineer, and Barry Crow, electrical design engineer, make adjustments to a boxlike structure mounted on a three-legged stand. Two large lenses protrude from the front end. Multiple wires connect to the back. While it hardly looks threatening in appearance, Boeing's Compact Laser Weapon System represents the latest response to the increasing use of unmanned airborne systems in warfare situations. Developed for the U.S. Army Special Forces, the laser weapon can disable or bring down an enemy unmanned aircraft by destroying its camera, engine or aerodynamics. It shoots a silent, light-speed beam at a target, including from long range, and brings down unmanned aircraft in seconds.

"Small UAS (unmanned airborne systems) are a priority for us—our adversaries have them and bad actors within our borders have them," DeYoung said. "You can buy them with a high-definition camera at an electronics store for $1,200. The legacy we want is to get laser advances to our product, and get the product in the hands of the warfighter."

The Compact Laser Weapon System can be more easily transported across a battlefield and used than comparable weaponry, the engineers say. Just two people are needed to pick it up and load it onto a military vehicle. Setup time requires 10 minutes.

Added troop and civilian safety is a big motivator for these Boeing Albuquerque engineers to complete this project that is about two years in the making. "If we can have just one more American soldier, airman or Marine come home safe, if we can lessen the civilian casualties by being more lethal, I think we've done our job," Crow said. With customer feedback in hand, mechanical engineers Kurt Sorenson and Bryan Crespin apply upgrades to the Compact Laser Weapon System. The chief outside request: Build the equipment even more rugged in order to deal with different types of terrain and weather, plus troops packing it up in a hurry to exit a combat zone.

Users welcome controls that operate similar to those on a video-game console. They also appreciate the element of surprise the laser weapon guarantees, which is a strong selling point for the military.

"Even a kilometer or two away, it's stealthy," Crespin said. "People just don't know where it's coming from."

Elsewhere at Boeing Albuquerque, a team of engineers led by Juan Ceniceros, a former NASA employee, builds cameras and sensors for the Vision-based, Electro-Optical Sensor Tracking Assembly, or VESTA. This is part of the transportation technology that will guide Boeing's Crew Space Transportation vehicle, known as the CST-100 Starliner, in navigation and docking at the International Space Station.

"Not a lot of people can say, ‘I build something that will help transport crew into space,' " Ceniceros said. "We push boundaries here. We do stuff that hasn't been done before. To be part of historic first events, it's a badge of honor."

The engineers keep images of the astronauts who were selected to train to fly the first Starliner flight test posted on an office wall, reminding them of the human element involved in their work. They continue to refine two cameras and a processor that will work with lasers to track everything from the International Space Station to stars and algorithms for the Starliner, America's newest space capsule.

The crowning moment for the engineers will be watching the broadcast of the first Starliner flight that docks with the space station with a crew on board.

"Of the things that will be shown on TV, we will be responsible for them, and it's really cool to think about it," said Matt Beckmann, Boeing Albuquerque chief engineer for VESTA. "I've tried to explain to friends and family what I do, but it's not easy. They don't understand laser stuff." Bruce Stribling, Boeing Laser & Electro-Optical Systems engineer and Technical Fellow, who previously worked at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Maui, Hawaii, heads up another Boeing team that is preparing space situational awareness and advanced tracking technology, which is similar in purpose to what Starfire Optical Range is testing, yet different in approach. Stribling and lead engineer Steve Hanes work on a complicated optical assembly atop an elevated table that holds a wide assortment of intricate parts.

They share a great sense of responsibility—their project carries national security implications. "Building a strong light processor is the secret sauce," Stribling said. "That's how we detect real targets in space."

Mark Skinner, Boeing Albuquerque senior scientist, moves in a different direction when it comes to Boeing tracking options. He pursues commercial customers for available space-awareness data, proposing that every new commercial satellite have access to this protection.

Geosynchronous orbit is getting crowded, putting expensive assets at risk. Whereas space was once the exclusive domain of a handful of countries, more are developing technology and mulling space exploration, Skinner said.

Government agencies worldwide want safeguards for their space assets in what remains an unregulated environment, Skinner said. Boeing offers the interrelated use of radio frequencies, satellite dishes and telescopes to address this matter, sharing with the commercial sector existing technology that already supports military interests.

"We're convinced that the customer is ready to do things that matter in a cost-effective way," Skinner said. "It's an international kind of thing; we're working closely with people in Europe. It's a role Boeing can step into quickly."

Engineers and scientists feel a sense of urgency to test out their tracking systems and weapon concepts. The next step is to put these systems to use, enhancing national security and defense missions among other pressing needs, Boeing Albuquerque leaders say.

Maybe then, according to DeYoung, the lingering perception that lasers are somehow geared only for a futuristic world, that these narrow, colorful bands of light remain an untapped resource still years from making a difference, will diffuse.

"One of the comments attributed to laser weapons drives me crazy—that they're weapons of the future and they always will be," DeYoung said. "Lasers are available today. We're trying to break that paradigm, that mindset. It's now."

By Dan Raley