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Spacecraft tracking facility on horizon for Brownsville

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Posted: Monday, November 26, 2012 9:29 pm

Brownsville might be destined for the aerospace business whether SpaceX builds a rocket launch site here or not.

STARGATE, which stands for “South Texas Spacecraft Tracking and Astronomical Research into Giga-hertz Astrophysical Transient Emission,” has a 90 percent chance of becoming a reality, according to Fredrick Jenet, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Texas at Brownsville and director of UTB’s Center for Advanced Radio Astronomy.

STARGATE is Jenet’s concept for a radio frequency technology facility that would give students and faculty access to cutting-edge equipment with commercial as well as academic applications, including satellite and spacecraft tracking.

It would be located at Boca Chica in the same general area SpaceX is considering for a launch site. While the facility clearly would improve Brownsville’s odds of attracting SpaceX, STARGATE could go forward without it. At the same time, Jenet is negotiating with SpaceX — and other high-tech firms — about getting STARGATE built, he said.

The Greater Brownsville Incentives Corp. at its Oct. 18 board meeting approved $500,000 in seed money for the STARGATE project. According to minutes from the meeting, the board stipulated that the approved funds be released “once a Memorandum of Understanding was executed between (UTB) and Space-X and once invoices were provided for the various development stages (including purchase of land) of the project.”

“This type of radio frequency technology research center is the type of thing that would make Brownsville very attractive to any high-tech company, including SpaceX,” Jenet said. “A facility like this is going to be extremely attractive to high-tech companies — to be able to see that this work is going on down here: Yes, we do have high-tech workers that we are training and, yes, they are working with cutting-edge equipment. And we’re also going to be making scientific discoveries.”

The main purpose of STARGATE is to build the local technology base by creating a tech-savvy workforce. UTB’s radio astronomy center works with students from high school through college, Jenet said. STARGATE is a logical extension of the center’s existing programs, he noted, including the Arecibo Remote Command Center, which gives students and faculty in Brownsville access to and control of Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, the largest single-dish radio telescope in the world.

Jenet said UTB’s radio astronomy program is an effective magnet for attracting students into STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — and that the skills they learn are highly transferable to other areas of academia and industry. STARGATE would also be run through the radio astronomy center.

He praised board members with GBIC and the Brownsville Economic Development Council, which advises GBIC, for “insight and forethought” in their support of funds to help build STARGATE, the first phase of which likely would cost between $4 million and $6 million.

“Getting the initial seed money was really great,” Jenet said. “We still have more fundraising that needs to happen. I’m positive we will be able to pull all this together in the near future.”

Gil Salinas, BEDC executive vice president, said STARGATE would be one of just a handful of such facilities in the United States and would enhance his organization’s ability to lure high-tech companies to the Brownsville region.

“It’ll just make our place more attractive, and it will strengthen our position,” he said. “It’s perfectly in line with the types of companies we’re trying to recruit. If you start connecting the dots, you can see we’re trying to lay a foundation and develop an aerospace cluster from scratch. Not many have done that. This is a project that would be beneficial to multiple companies in the aerospace industry.”

Jenet said that, if built, STARGATE would send a powerful message that things are changing in the Rio Grande Valley.

“That’s also one of the strong pluses, is that it’s a high profile thing that sort of redefines what it means to be coming from the Valley,” he said. “I think you can probably tell it’s going to play a key role in effecting a lot of changes here in South Texas.”

Jenet described UTB’s efforts to develop STARGATE and the drive to land a SpaceX launch site as “parallel but coordinated.” Final word on STARGATE should come down soon, he added, expressing confidence that it indeed will come to pass.

“We’ll definitely know by early next year if this is really going to happen,” Jenet said. “I think it will. I would start betting now.”

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