In 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.
Several 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 selfland.wordpress.com.