Small company is sky-high

Clockwise from front left, Nancy Parker, Jim Hammond, Jason Walsh, Edmund Burke, Marty Waldman, Matt Barsotti, Michelle Buhrinf and Nena Forman, all of the Space Information Laboratories team, pose Friday with an early model of the Vehicle Based Independent Tracking System, or VBITS, a GPS system for rockets. 

A device created by a small business in Santa Maria could change the way Atlas 5 and Delta 4 boosters are tracked upon liftoff.

The Vehicle Based Independent Tracking System, or VBITS, was developed by Santa Maria-based Space Information Laboratories, and its debut is scheduled for launch on a rocket this month in Florida.

VBITS will allow crews to track rockets using GPS satellite technology instead of old-fashioned radar.

The first of three required test flights is scheduled for Feb. 16 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket set to blast off from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Although experienced in the aerospace business, the creators said they are eager for launch day so they can have proof the system works as designed for the rough environment of riding a rocket to space.

"There's a lot of passion in this unit," said Edmund Burke, SIL co-founder and co-creator of VBITS along with Matt Barsotti, SIL principle engineer, and Jason Walsh, director of research and development.

The second flight will come later this summer on a rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base, and the third will be on the East Coast next year.

"After that, the Air Force will look at the data from the missions from the tracking unit and see how well it performs," Burke said. "Once that happens ... it will be certified for range safety."

At about 8 inches by 8 inches by 6 inches, VBITS weighs in at approximately 10 pounds.

Because of its modular design, the engineers called it "Lego-like." When asked to install lightning protection equipment, they simply added another modular block to accommodate the request. The creators said the "stackable design" helped lead to affordability.

Saving money also is one key reason that rocket makers and the government are looking to implement GPS tracking, which is viewed as a more economical and reliable approach to keeping an eye on just-launched rockets and missiles.

For the past half-century, the Air Force has used an array of radars to track rockets and missiles that launch from Vandenberg and Florida. It takes multiple radars to ensure suitable coverage and backup in case one system fails.

For each launch, crews at the Western and Eastern ranges - a wide network of radars and sensors based at Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral - keeps close watch on the just-launched rockets and missiles. Crews issue a destruct command if a vehicle begins to create a danger to populated areas by veering off course.

But radar tracking becomes less accurate as the vehicle travels farther from the Earth-bound radar equipment.

GPS shouldn't have that restriction.

When it was first proposed, switching to GPS tracking caused concerns among aerospace insiders. That's because the technology wasn't ready at the time, a claim that was proven by receivers that didn't track continuously, Burke said.

"The technology over the last five years has moved to a point where a lot of the concerns have been mitigated," Burke said. "Now it's flown a lot on different vehicles and it's proven to be highly reliable. For range safety you need continuous data. It can't fall apart as the vehicle's flying."

In fact, SIL's smaller VBITS has flown on missile-defense boosters in recent years.

"This is very significant, this transformation that is happening on the range. It came from this small business. Our innovation, our work, sweat equity, staying up late at nights and coming up with solutions. We made it through space qual (qualification). It's on the bird," Burke said.

SIL's founders - Burke and retired civil servant Marty Waldman - are familiar with seeing their creations fly into orbit, having crafted the Get-Away Special canister to carry student-built experiments aboard the shuttle Endeavour in 1993.

The idea for VBITS actually dates back 17 years, Waldman said. The technology was patented in 1998. A first edition was built in a garage in 2000.

They had big dreams for VBITS from the start.

"We always wanted to be on the biggest rocket," Waldman said.

With launch just days away, VBITS already sits aboard the rocket awaiting liftoff from Florida.

But VBITS traveled a long distance to reach that spot. Before even getting onto the rocket, the device had to be qualified for space to ensure it could handle the shock and vibration of riding aboard a vehicle racing to space.

SIL partnered with Chattsworth-based Space Vector to compete for the contract for VBITS to ride on United Launch Alliance's Atlas and Delta rockets. Since Space Vector had existing procedures in place, VBITS are manufactured by that firm.

After an open competition, ULA picked the SIL team in 2008.

"For them to pick us, a small business in Santa Maria, being the large company that they are, is great honor and just a huge success for us," Walsh said.

Because of the contract win, and a later one to manufacture batteries for a different program, the firm has hired several local engineers. That increases the size of its staff to 10, with two other positions to be added soon.

"We're innovators," Burke said. "We're small business innovators and we're creating jobs for talented people in our Central Coast community. That's important."


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