column as it appeared in Honolulu Star Advertiser
March 12, 2019
Column: There are many reasons for launching satellites from Hawaii
Posted March 12, 2019
Why not Hawaii?
Why not launch satellites into orbit from Hawaii?
For one thing, launching from Hawaii can save money.
It requires a horizontal speed of 17,500 mph to get an object into a low-Earth orbit. And this is at a paltry altitude of about 62 miles. To achieve this, large amounts of energy are required, which translates into large sums of money. As such, it is natural to look for ways to reduce the amount of energy and thereby costs. Because of our unique location, and Hawaii island in particular, we can actually shave 985 mph off this value. Why? Because of the rotation of Earth on its axis. It surprises many to know that they are traveling just shy of 1,000 mph when they are just sitting at their desks. This rotational gift is why many orbital facilities are located near the equator, and Hawaii island is pretty close.
Hawaii provides more flexibility
Because some parts of Hawaii island have almost 200 degrees of ocean-facing property, launch inclinations that would put a satellite in an equatorial orbit (east to west) as well as a polar orbit (north to south) are possible. Many of the current launch facilities are limited and can only do one or the other, but very few can do both. Hawaii island can.
The ocean serves as a buffer.
Since there is a high risk for spectacular failure whenever dealing with anything involving high energy, safety becomes a primary concern. The ocean is a large safe zone by which a mishap can occur without endangering residences. It is for this reason that many launch facilities are built besides the ocean. Immediately after launch the ascending rocket is quickly over water and no longer an immediate hazard.
What about environmental impacts?
To answer this question we can look to the Wallops launch facility on the East Coast. The launch facility is several miles from a tourist attraction, just south of a national park, next to a bird sanctuary and in wetlands and the nearby bird sanctuary. Launches occur once or twice a month, usually lasting six to eight minutes, and bring in a large number of tourists just to see this. There has been zero impacts on the wetlands and the nearby bird sanctuary.
The only impact has been to the nearby fishing industry; it has to halt fishing in the launch and recovery areas for about an hour before launch. But even this has been turned into an advantage: It turns out that NASA pays a bounty for any recovered rocket.
Wallops has to keep a large area of the ocean closed to fishing during launch because the rockets they launch are all suborbital and do require a splashdown area. As planned, Hawaii would not need a splashdown site because we would be going to orbit.
How would it benefit Hawaii?
Five aerospace companies have expressed interest in launching microsatellites from a local launch facility should Hawaii choose to build one. Each of those companies would bring millions of dollars to the state economy. Each has stated that it would rather hire local residents than import offshore crews. And each has a past of proactive community engagement. Wouldn’t it be nice for Hawaii to have a technical endeavor for the many graduating engineering students who so often have to find their futures away from home?
So, why not, Hawaii?
Jacob Hudson is a faculty instructor of physics, engineering and rocketry at Windward Community College. He is also rocketry coordinator for the Hawaii Space Grant Consortium. In addition, he teaches physics at Damien Memorial School.