Cozy Dark: Science is awesome, and space is pretty! ...wanna be friends?

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SloganMedia.Net is entering into development on their first scripted Sci-Fi feature project currently entitled SPACE. On board for Consulting Producer duties is Zachary Urbina who is a phenomenal writer and part of the exciting world of NASA and the Department of Defense.

While the movie will be firmly based in near-future technology, it will connect with audiences by exploring the people involved and the timeless struggles of the human experience.

“We are very excited to have Mr. Urbina’s vast knowledge of the science and players in the space travel community at our disposal in creating a human story set in the rapidly changing world of technology,” said Slogan co-founder John Stobaugh.

Slogan Media is a production company focused on developing entertainment for mainstream consumption & corporate branding.

OMG, I’m producing a movie!! - ZU

A friend of mine who may or may not work on Boeing’s classified X-37b space plane recently invested in Makerbot’s Replicator 2.  Released to the public in late 2012, the Replicator 2 is a desktop 3D printer with a resolution capability of 100 microns and a massive 410 cubic inch build volume. My friend has been extruding all kinds of interesting objects, including that pretty sweet Cozy Dark logo. It can extrude moving parts! The wheels to that MSL rover printed out with the ability to roll. Below is a close up of the Replicator 2 in action. - ZU

Keeping the X in Xmas |

As you might imagine, I am not the most adherent conscript of religion who ever walked this Earth. Like Richard Feynman, I hunger more so for new knowledge and enjoy “the pleasure of finding things out.” There remains so much still to discover.

By keeping the X in Xmas, I’m not taking a shot at religion, or Jesus, or anyone, really. Keeping the X in Xmas means maintaining a sense of mystery in the world. That there is always an X, a unknown variable, always something to be solved for, or puzzled over, or simply not fully understood.

Starting and running this blog has reminded me that there are many of you out there who see the world through similar eyes. For those who have joined my quest for X, searching out truth in the welcoming void, the cozy dark, I salute you and thank you for joining me. We are travelers on the same road, even if we never meet.

- ZU

Ask away


the interview

I also blog for United Academics magazine

SpaceUpLA: A space unconference for people who care deeply about humanity’s future in space and want to play a part in it. August 18-19, 2012 (via itsfullofstars)

if you’re on the west coast, you should attend. i’m planning on giving a talk. - ZU

Cozy Dark’s Zach Urbina | An Interview

imageIn 2010, a USC English Major decided to look to the stars for his next career move. Fascinated by the problem of orbital debris and the promise of electrodynamic tether technology—a way to clean up our outer atmosphere—Zachary Urbina joined together with friends in Southern California’s AeroAstro community to form Cozy Dark.

They came at just the right time. A little over a month ago, NASA gave $1.9 million dollars to a small company in South Carolina to develop a debris eliminator. Then Swiss scientists announced a plan to launch a “janitor satellite” that would do the same thing. Another solution to this “space junk” problem is something called an electrodynamic tether. Essentially, these are very long wires, some of which exceed 20 km in length, braided with a composite plastic to make them more robust. With one end a negatively biased anode and the other a positively biased hollow cathode emitter, the wires work by attracting free-floating electrons in the ionosphere [electrodynamic tether talk].

Think of it as a celestial broom that gets rid of space junk.

  • above: Cozy Dark founder Zach Urbina
  • photo by Brett Van Ort
  • interview by Richard Denoncourt

Rich Denoncourt: So, what is Cozy Dark?

Zach Urbina: Cozy Dark, the name, is a nod back to the Cold War days of Lockheed. Lockheed had an advanced technology division that they called Skunk Works. My great uncle, who was my benefactor and paid for me to attend USC, worked there as an avionics engineer for decades. He worked on the SR71, and later a project called Have Blue. Have Blue, Skunk Works are both Cozy Dark kinds of names. Semi-cryptic. During the late 70s, the Have Blue prototype eventually became the F117a, better known as the stealth, of Desert Storm fame.

On an organizational level, Cozy Dark started as an idea. I was interested in orbital debris. I spent more/less three years of my free time looking into starting a technology company. I had three solid plans in mind and was bouncing them off of friends I made in the MindshareLA community, lots of Caltech and MIT students and faculty. The first two ideas had to do with municipal infrastructure and those kinds of projects seemed difficult to manage without substantial political connections. Orbital debris was then, and still is, a wide open, underdeveloped industry.

I was at an event called Little Green, a sustainability-themed cocktail party, run by Heather Knight. This was before Heather decided to pursue a PhD at Carnegie Mellon. It was at my second Little Green that I met my first colleague, Alfred. I was going on about spent rocket stages in low-Earth orbit and he mentioned, “Oh by the way, I just happen to be a satellite survivability engineer at Boeing.” For the next few months we met on the weekends and evenings to look over the patents (he is/was a huge patent geek, which helped the cause tremendously) and see what was out there, to see what we should be doing, on the technical side of things.

We started looking into a relatively underdeveloped technology called electrodynamic tethers. From there, things took on a life of their own. Tether technology is known by a very few number of people worldwide. Shortly after Alfred and I submitted our first proposal to the Department of Defense, we were introduced to Joe Carroll down in San Diego. Our first meeting at Joe’s house lasted 8 hours. Over the last year, he’s become something of a mentor to me, and I have tremendous respect for his work with tethers. Joe has a tether mission, TEPCE, flying on a SpaceX rocket, sometime later this year or early next, depending on their launch window.

Space debris is only one side of our business, and recently we’ve started some interesting new projects that seem promising.

RD: You don’t have an educational background in the sciences, right? What drew you to this field?

ZU: No, I was an English Major at USC. One thing about that, I’ve heard it said that an English degree is useless save for teaching. I’ve discovered that is NOT the case. Engineers hate to write. Well, maybe not all of then, but many of them. So, when we’ve been crafting proposals for NIAC and SBIR, I’ve found the writing background and a willingness to do serious research an added benefit.

I mentioned before my great uncle at Lockheed, but I also have another unique family member worth mentioning. My uncle Dr. Eric Becklin is a pretty well-known astronomer. His background is in infrared sources. In about 1966, he and his research partner pin-pointed Sagittarius A, an infrared source which is more/less the center of our galaxy, the Milky Way. He’s the lead scientist on the SOFIA project which is an airborne infrared observatory. It’s a 747 with a massive barn door that slides back to reveal the infrared telescope. They fly it high, like 40,000+ to get above atmospheric water vapor, which blocks light at infrared wavelengths. Growing up, we used to call Uncle Eric “Doc Brown,” because he had this hair which was pure Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. He still does, actually. 

Beyond that, I would have to say Legos. I had an interest in Estes model rockets, like a lot of young boys, but it was really my Lego collection that stoked all that. If you have this giant bin of Legos (which we did; I think it originated at a weekend yard sale in one of those too-good-to-be-true bargain discoveries) and all you keep building are spacecraft and robotic rovers, I think that points to something. There’s this Ursula LeGuin quote that I think applies here: “The creative adult is the child who survived.” I like that.

RD: That’s a great quote. And we all remember playing with Legos. To follow up on something you mentioned before, how is orbital debris a problem? What are the benefits to removing it?

ZU: The analogies for the orbital debris problem that I consistently encounter are: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the semi-porous US/Mexico border, radon contamination, airline security and CFC pollution. These are all issues that are or have been difficult to get institutional arms around, yet persistent enough to maintain more/less constant media attention. The problem is that launch providers, who bear much of the blame for larger debris objects, and satellite operators and insurers, who bear the most exposure risks for their property, have very different exposure times to both larger and small debris objects. The International Space Station completes a revolution around the earth every 90 or so minutes and has been in low-earth orbit since 1990. That is a lot of time to potentially bump into things. Other satellites are up and operating for even longer.

imageSeveral months ago, all six astronauts on board the ISS had to evacuate to an escape pod because of a small piece of incoming debris. We’re talking about six highly trained, expertly educated men and women, doing advanced scientific and technical work in a $160 billion modular space station, built by a 16-nation group of station partners, all of which were imperiled by tiny pieces of orbital debris. The station is simply not built to be robust enough to take a hit from chunks of aluminum falling in a 17,000 mph circle.

Beyond cleaning up low-Earth orbit, the debris problem will likely lead, in the nearer future, to enhanced capabilities in imaging objects in orbit. Right now, the US Air Force can only track objects that are 10cm and larger (anything they perceive could be a weapon). With another colleague, I’ve helped design a ground-based telescope network, to begin tracking orbital debris in LEO and GEO that can image debris down to 2 or 3cm. We believe it is the first big step toward developing a paying customer for eventual debris removal. We believe that satellite operators and insurers would find tracking and position information of tiny debris of great value to their assets.

There is also the very unlikely, but not unheard of eventuality of something big that would fall from LEO, not burn up in the atmosphere, and land in a populated area. Titanium rocket motor casings tend not to burn up, but we haven’t seen anything like that fall somewhere that presents a significant threat to humans or infrastructure. Not yet, anyhow.

RD: So your work will prevent astronauts from having to undergo costly evacuation procedures as well as reduce potential dangers caused by falling debris. It sounds like you’ve hit upon a solid demand. What can you tell me about Cozy Dark’s accomplishments in the past 12 months? What has been your own greatest accomplishment since forming this start-up?

ZU: The ISS is definitely the most valuable asset in low-Earth orbit, but certainly not the only one. Commercial and government satellites remain at risk from debris conjunctions, as well as future launches. Because of the currently restricted nature of human spaceflight to LEO (right now, only the Russians can get you there), we as a planet are at an all-time low for regular access to space.

I see so much work ahead that it gets exceedingly difficult to look back on accomplishments. On a personal level, I am most proud of developing our latest project with Joe Carroll. My group of peers around my age are all pretty ambitious and well educated. We’re talking, Caltech, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, etc. working at XCOR, SpaceX, Boeing, etc.

Joe is different. He’s older. He’s an independent contractor, meaning he’s a rogue, a pirate. He’s one of the brightest mathematical minds I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He’s also a great story teller. He’s savagely competitive. Before we actually sat down to speak in person, three different people suggested that he and I meet. To think that I’m now actively collaborating on a project with someone like him is a tremendous compliment. It feels like my efforts with Cozy Dark are on the right path.

RD: Where do you see yourself and Cozy Dark in 5 years?

Our ground-based telescope network is a big, big project, but it is by no means the most ambitious. The real question right now is access to orbit. SpaceX is positioned to make the most effective strides getting technology to orbit, but their price points, however reduced, are still beyond our modest efforts.

However, if XCOR gets their Lynx Mark III up and flying suborbital in the next two or three years, we may be able to achieve access to orbit via a second stage or sounding rocket. The Lynx Mark III is reported to have a dorsal pod that can hold a pretty sizable payload.

Without getting into details, I can safely say that we are very interested in a suborbital flight that can take a payload to roughly 300,000 feet. From there, orbital access changes the kind of mission profiles you can plan for, the kind of on-orbit activity you can participate in. Frankly, it changes everything. I’d like Cozy Dark to manage a constellation of cubesats, with a variety of capabilities. From this point in time, that goal appears to be within reach.

There’s a lot that can go wrong between now and then. Rockets explode. Planes crash. Deals go sour. But there’s also quite a lot that can go right. SpaceX is leading the charge, and I see Cozy Dark and several other companies ushering in a kind of New Space Renaissance in Southern California, over the next five years. The future looks bright and highly commercial.

Richard Denoncourt studied literature and philosophy at Colgate University and received an M.F.A. in creative writing from The New School. He is an independently published novelist and maintains a blog at

2012 Spacecraft Technology Expo Lands at the LA Convention Center |

In a city where glamour and fame often capture the media spotlight, it can be easy to forget that modern rocketry first took root in a dusty stretch of dry riverbed in Pasadena, and eventually bloomed into the most ambitious efforts of humankind to date. Last week, in Downtown Los Angeles, the industry leaders and feisty upstarts who continue to carry that proverbial torch gathered to show-off the current capabilities and bold plans for the future at the Spacecraft Technology Expo.

From May 9th through May 10th, the Los Angeles Convention Center played host to the best and the brightest in orbital and suborbital technology.  Although there were bigger and more moneyed players in the space game who took out space at the expo, it was small, but determined suborbital flight provider XCOR Aerospace who stole the floor of the convention with a full-scale mock-up of their Lynx spacecraft, a rocket-propelled reusable launch vehicle.

Additional exhibit’s worthy of mention included Sage Cheshire Aerospace’s Red Bull Stratos capsule, built for the upcoming record-breaking skydive of Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner.  Baumgartner recently completed a test jump from 70,000 feet and is sure to make more headlines for both Red Bull and Sage Cheshire as he scales up to an eventual 120,000 ft. jump sometime later this year. - ZU

continue reading

The Spaceship Company hosted a career fair on Saturday, April 21st in Mojave, CA.  The company, which is building suborbital spacecraft WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic, has had trouble finding engineers and other technicians. If you have the background and education, I can’t recommend strongly enough applying through their website. -ZU

Some people head down to SpaceX to witness the historic commercial development of access to low-Earth orbit. I happen to be partial to the free frozen yogurt. Go boldly, friends.  That 30 April launch date can’t come soon enough, IMHO. - ZU

Today I was treated to a tour of Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena.  Highlights included a full-sized, fully functional Mars Science Lab rover and a bird’s eye view of exploration mission operations control center.  At the time we were passing through, data packets from the Dawn mission to Vesta were being received.  Another highlight was a 1/3 scale model of the lunar ATHLETE rover which was just kinda hanging out in a shed. - ZU

Lift-off for the Los Angeles Space Salon |

Last Wednesday night marked the first gathering of the Los Angeles Space Salon, at the Brewery Arts Complex in Lincoln Heights. Organizers Scott Norman (SpaceX), Simone Syed (BIL co-founder), and Michael Clive (XCOR) lured out an extensive cross section of the aerospace community, traveling from San Diego to Mojave, to engage in a vibrant dialogue that featured an opening talk from Virgin Galactic’s Will Pomerantz.

After an informative and insightful presentation by Pomerantz, the floor was opened to discussion, which ranged from the merits of a post-shuttle NASA to commercial versus government-backed space efforts.

Though professional backgrounds and opinions of attendees varied considerably, all involved seemed to agree that much of the future of space transportation and access hinged upon the success of Elon Musk’s Hawthorne-based commercial rocket endeavor SpaceX, soon expected to fly resupply and crew missions to the International Space Station.

A notable highlight of the evening was a light verbal skirmish between John Spencer of the Space Tourism Society, who argued that the primary offering to the public should be “the space experience.”  Molly McCormick, who splits her time between Raytheon and Orbital Outfitters countered that, “There are real, productive reasons to want to go to space that will benefit everyone. Space is more than an experience; it is a resource.  There are things we can do and make in the microgravity of space that are extremely difficult or even impossible to do or make on Earth: exotic materials, precision components, satellites, medicines, etc.”

continue reading | Los Angeles I’m Yours | by Zachary Urbina via pasadenapictures

(via zbina)

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