Mapping the future of space travel: New Mexico State University undergrads use GPS technology to find and plot points at site of proposed spaceport

By C. Jason Smith, PhD

GEO: connexion

In a move designed to bring space travel and space-based scientific experimentation to the masses, citizens of New Mexico recently voted to help fund the nation’s first commercial spaceport. Located about 40 miles north of Las Cruces, the $225 million “Spaceport America” will, in addition to becoming the center of the nation’s growing private rocket industry, also serve as the headquarters for space tourism company Virgin Galactic, which is already selling $200,000 tickets for a 21/2-hour suborbital flight. Helping make a contribution to the project’s early developmental stages, a group of surveying engineering students from the Las Cruces campus of New Mexico State University, is using state of the art Topcon GPS technology to locate government boundaries and corners, some of which date back to the late 1800s.

A Group Effort

NMSU’s involvement in the project stems from efforts taken by Dr. Steve Frank, coordinator of the university’s surveying engineering program, and Dr. Patricia Hynes, director of the New Mexico Space Grant Consortium. Knowing that one of their colleagues, Bill Gutman, associate director of the university’s Emerging Technologies Laboratory, was a huge proponent of the Spaceport project, Frank and fellow surveying professor Dr. Kurt Wurm approached Gutman about involving surveying students in the project.

He was extremely receptive to the idea,” says Frank, “asking us to do some general surveying work and locate, some government boundaries. In addition, he is very aware of the importance of maintaining and documenting historic corner markers. So when we asked him if we also could go out and locate all the original government corners, preserve their locations, take photos of them, and so on, he was equally receptive to that.”

The general surveying projects took place in 2005 and included construction staking for several roads leading to a proposed launch pad, as well as for the pad itself.

“That pad has since been completed,” says Frank, “and recently served as the launch site for a rocket containing the ashes of the late actor James Doohan who played Scotty in the original Star Trek TV series. It was something of a national news event and it’s excellent to think our students had something to do with bringing it about.”

Hitting the Mark

Locating corners and historic markers has traditionally been a long, time-consuming process that can include finding terrain changes on a map, locating fence posts or other identifiable landmarks, etc. Even that might only get one within 500 feet of the corner being sought; the rest would rely upon legwork and a keen eye. In their effort, Frank and his NMSU students had a distinct advantage.

“We used a trio of Topcon HiPer + receivers as our base stations–we use three, both to allow a solid check and as a fail safe measure. Then, using handheld GPS units, we hiked into an area to find a marker and, once located, set another Topcon HiPer + antenna over it. In about 15 minutes we were able to get a good survey fix on the marker and move on to the next one.”

Frank says the Topcon units’ dual-frequency capability and GLONASS feature allowed them to find the corners–there are a total of 153 of them–much quicker than expected, particularly when compared to older GPS-based equipment.

“In the past we would have to wait as much as 30-45 minutes to get reliable data,” he says. “Using the new gear we can typically get it in as little as 12 minutes now. That part of the work has been reduced by better than one-third and the accuracy is right on the mark.”

Supplying the Future

While Frank is quick to sing the praises of the equipment performance at the spaceport site, he is equally grateful for the circumstances and cooperation that helped make that gear available to him and his survey classes.

“For a number of years now, we have had a good relationship with Tony Trujillo from the Albuquerque branch of Holman’s, Inc., one of the area’s largest suppliers of surveying equipment. About three years ago he was able to get us a couple Topcon GPS units through his shop on a zero lease deal. When the time came to return the machines, he told us Topcon was getting ready to announce a new university education program and, if we could wait a few weeks, he felt it would be worth our while.”

According to Frank, Trujillo had not exaggerated his claim. When all was said and done, NMSU was able to add two new complete Topcon GPS instrument and software packages valued at $100,000 for just a small fraction of the cost.

“In all fairness, there are other equipment manufacturers who make similar offers to help out surveying departments like ours. However, Tony really went to bat for us to see that we were able to get two full packages, rather than just one, which has really been a huge plus for us. And it bears mentioning that we’ve also approached some equipment companies, only to be told: ‘students don’t buy our equipment.’ Well, perhaps not now, but I have to feel that, as these young people get out in to the field, they’re going to remember those firms–and they’re going to remember companies like Topcon.”

Work to be Done

Frank says they have located and coded all but six of the 153 corners in the 27 square mile site chosen for “Spaceport America.” Those six, he says, can be an excellent jumping off point for his next class.

“I think something like this is an excellent opportunity, both for the students to get valuable hands-on experience and to see markers that, in many cases, haven’t been seen since 1938. At the same time, they are recording data that will ultimately prove useful to surveying crews as work on the spaceport proceeds. While we’re out there in the desert–and our days generally last about eight hours–situations sometimes arise that make a measurement next to impossible. I try to encourage the students to get creative, to come up with innovative solutions and they really respond to that. This technology is undoubtedly the future of the industry they’ve chosen and we’re grateful that they have the opportunity to learn on some of the best gear available today.”

Article by C. Jason Smith, PhD. Dr. Smith is an English professor at LaGuardia College, in the City University of New York system. He is cofounder of Disciple and Publish, a New York-based consulting and technical writing group.


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