UND student from Milbank, SD launches spacecraft business

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Alex Holland has always been interested in space.

The 19-year-old Milbank, South Dakota, native helped build a small spacecraft in the OpenOrbiter program at the University of North Dakota as a college freshman. That experience led him to start a business that he hopes will make spacecraft technology more accessible.

Holland, now preparing to enter his third year at UND, worked with recent graduate Michael Wegerson and his twin brother Sean Wegerson to create Open Space Frontier Technologies LLC, which opened at the start of summer.

The company sells materials to create satellites like the OpenOrbiter spacecraft that can be held in the palm of one's hand. These 10-centimeter cubes called "CubeSat" can be customized to allow for any number of experiments, and the small satellites are able to be launched into space.

"These little satellites can do just as much as the large satellites up (in space) now," Holland told the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/2aqKIiF ). "We hope to show that this technology ... is more readily accessible."

Satellite technology is expensive. Buying kits to make satellites from other vendors can cost $60,000, according to Jeremy Straub, director of the OpenOrbiter program.

Straub's goal in the program was to create a satellite for under $5,000. At its completion, the CubeSat cost $3,000.

Holland realized after working with Straub that this small satellite could become a business. He secured funding from the UND Center for Innovation's Muller Internship Fund, and, with the help of the Wegerson twins, he worked throughout the past year to launch Open Space Frontier Technologies.

"We had such a great experience designing this satellite for OpenOrbiter," Michael Wegerson said. "We wanted to give this experience to other students, university students and high school students. We want to allow them to design their own satellite."

Customers can purchase satellite parts, kits to build a CubeSat or a satellite that's already been assembled. Kits run for about $3,000, a price point far lower than previously available.

"Something that used to be nearly impossible to do now is actually practical," Straub said.

For now, Open Space's target customers are universities, Holland said. NASA sponsors a program to launch spacecrafts at no cost for education institutions, which is how OpenOrbiter is planning to launch its first spacecraft next spring, Straub said.

Students can customize the Open Space satellite and integrate cameras or other experiments. For example, UND students are planning on integrating a 3D printing module to the CubeSat to test the capabilities of 3D printing in space.

"Literally the sky is the limit," Sean Wegerson said.

The company is still working to build its full product line, but it already has its first order. It will be designing, developing and fabricating the structure for the OpenOrbiter2 spacecraft, which is set to be twice the size of the original palm-sized model.

Things are moving quickly for the new company, and while colleges are the main target customer now, Open Space founders hope businesses and possibly even government projects will also take advantage of the satellite technology.

"Ultimately the goal that we're trying to achieve is to provide affordable access to space and provide real-world STEM experience to people who wouldn't have access," Sean said. "Historically, (satellite technology) has been as unreachable as space."

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