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University holds tenth annual Space Horizons workshop

Event focuses on private sector space industry, brings together students, researchers

This past weekend, students, faculty and aerospace professionals gathered in Barus and Holley to participate in the tenth annual Space Horizons workshop. The event focused on the industry’s shift toward the private sector, a change that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

The workshop was designed to provide an informal setting for conversation and interaction with the audience.  It was also shorter than more traditional conferences, lasting only 24 hours, said Rick Fleeter, adjunct associate professor of engineering and organizer of the conference. The shorter time span ensures that the audience is constantly engaged and actively participating throughout the day, he added.

The workshop included a series of keynote presentations from a wide array of speakers. “We try always to get a collision of different points of view,” Fleeter said, adding that the schedule included traditional scientists, a space policy professional and entrepreneurs with business models in asteroid mining and moon resources.

“Each of them has a different trajectory in their business careers. However, they are all really relevant to what people might face in the industry,” said Isabel Torrón, Rhode Island School of Design student and the lead student organzier of Space Horizons 2018.

The freedom of the private sector allows space exploration to have a faster “turnover time,” Torrón said. Private corporations can avoid otherwise drawn out government approval processes. Commercial companies are also able to complete projects that would “traditionally cost millions of dollars” for much lower prices, she added, pointing to an on-campus example — Brown’s EQUiSat satellite, which will be launched later this year, as The Herald previously reported.

Student groups from both RISD and Brown made an appearance at the workshop. Brown Space Engineering presented on its work with the EQUiSat satellite, while the RISD Rover team spoke about its entrance into the annual NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge, which hopes to put a robot on Mars.

As a RISD student and member of BSE, Torrón’s leadership in the event highlights its blend of science and design. She is currently working on developing a conceptual space station for her senior thesis and hopes that she can incorporate “design-based thinking” into the otherwise STEM-heavy field.

Space Horizons was started in November 2008 when Fleeter set out to change the way conferences in his field were held and received. “I was sort of a contrarian,” he said, commenting on his experience attending conferences before he became a professor at the University. Fleeter hoped to bring together scientists who were working in niche fields and were willing to shift away from more conventional ideas in the field, he said.

“I hope this conference serves as a way to network and meet other people,” Torrón said.

This year’s workshop had the highest student registration the organizers had ever seen, Fleeter said. He believes that this year’s focus on private industry was especially well-timed as companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin gain popularity among students. “Students are interested in commerce, in startups … and space is just an interesting topic now when you have these high profile individuals … investing in space. It brings together those two things,” Fleeter said. 

Tamara Rudic ’21 and Amanda Hinh ’21 are taking PHYS 0160: “Introduction to Relativity and Quantum Physics,” Hinh said, and the conference was an opportunity for them to learn more about the topic outside of the classroom. The workshop also allowed them to learn about the commercial side of space, Rudic added.


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