Akron inventor ready for takeoff

By on April 17, 2019

Sometime before the end of this year, Joe Latrell expects to tune his shortwave radio to 450 megahertz, and spend a few minutes each day listening to the signal from a softball-sized satellite as it passes overhead in low earth orbit, some 300 miles above his home in Akron.

His home includes a sturdy, well-stocked workshop in the backyard. What makes the workshop special is that it’s where Latrell used off-the-shelf parts to cobble together that satellite which, if everything goes well, will be passing overhead at precisely the same time every day.

Latrell, who calls himself a recovering rocket scientist, has been fascinated with space for most of his 50 or so years. And he was indeed the founder and CEO of a small rocket company based in Roswell, N.M. The company was fun, but not a living, Latrell said during an interview for this article a few weeks ago in his workshop.

Latrell spent most of his life in Colorado but moved to Ephrata some years ago to work as a technician for W. G. Malden Company, an East Earl firm that calibrates and maintains flow meters in municipal water and sewer systems. In that job, he got up close and personal with water in all its clean, not-so-clean, and disgustingly filthy states. The company’s technicians serve customers in eight northeastern states.

Joe Latrell in his Akron workshop with Mini-Cube components. Photos by Dick Wanner.

Latrell’s current job involves much less travel. He is a senior systems administrator for a Lancaster company, the Income Store, which provides web-based marketing services for a wide range of clientele. He and his wife, Tracey, moved to Akron in 2017.

During his time in the trenches — literally — of his water job, he became intrigued with the earth’s water. How much water is there? How much is available? What happens when there’s too much water in one place and not enough in another place? What knowledge do we have about water that can be used to guide land use decisions by countries, agencies, dam and highway builders, developers and even individual landowners and homeowners?

Latrell learned that there are a lot more questions about water than answers. With a fleet of about 24 small satellites, he believes he can map all the water on earth. And he believes he can market his collected data to those organizations and individuals who need it for planning and even emergencies.

But before he gets 24 satellites into space, he needs to get one into orbit to prove that his concept is workable. Latrell is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs who are working to commoditize space. One of their primary tools is the PocketCube, a cube made of spaceworthy materials, that is 5 centimeters — about two inches — on a side.

Latrell’s one-man company is called Mini-Cubes, LLC. His version of the PocketCube contains a camera, a radio to transmit images to earth, solar panels that fold out to provide energy, data storage, and an onboard computer to control the apparatus.

The satellite will be placed in a north-to-south sun-synchronous polar orbit. “Sun-Synchronous” means it will always be in sunlight. Most satellites are in equatorial orbits, moving east to west, or west to east. Satellites that appear stationary over one point above the earth, such as communication satellites, are always in equatorial orbits.

The fold-down flap on this Mini-Cube has a camera that will always be pointed towards the earth when the satellite is in orbit.

Latrell sent his recently completed Mini-Cube to Alba Orbital, a company in Glasgow, Scotland, that will include it with a payload that includes 13 more PocketCubes from paying customers from the U.S., Hungary, Germany, and Spain. Each cube has a specific function, determined by its owner.

From Glasgow, the Alba Orbital pod will go to New Zealand’s Mahia peninsula, where it will be plugged into a fairing — a kind of bowl — that will fit inside the nose cone of an Electron rocket. The rocket is manufactured by Rocket Lab, an American company that owns the New Zealand site. The rocket will carry the Astrolab Orbital payload into low-earth orbit, about 300 miles out. Rocket Lab was founded in 2006 by Peter Beck in Huntington Beach, Calif. The company is working on a second launch site at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops, Va.

The expendable Electron rocket is made of a lightweight carbon fiber material and is powered by computerized electric pumps manufactured with a 3D printer. The pumps provide a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene for propulsion.

Not too many years ago, this whole description would have sounded like science fiction.

Today it’s just science.

Latrell said he’s invested as much as $65,000 in time and money to get his first Mini-Cube ready for takeoff. It will cost him another $35,000 to get it into orbit.

“I don’t have any formal training for this work,” he said. “So it’s taken a lot of time.”

Power for the Mini-Cube will be provided by these solar panels which will fold out when the satellite is released to low earth orbit.

He did have a couple of years’ worth of college computer science and engineering courses, but most of what he’s done has been by trial and error. One example: he used galvanized screws to hold his Mini-Cube together. They cost 15 cents each. Then, he learned that zinc, which is key to the galvanizing process, evaporates in space, so he turned to stainless steel screws at $1.50 each.
Another thing he learned about was government paperwork.

“The FCC, the FAA, EPA and NOAA all had forms to fill out,” he said. “And all the paperwork is done.”

Latrell is confident enough with his science and his handiwork to pay his launch partners their going rate. And if the proof of concept actually works, he’ll be looking for investors to help him get the full fleet of 24 Mini-Cubes into space.

He’s not sure exactly when his very first Mini-Cube will launch, but when he knows the date and time of launch, he plans to post a link to a livestream feed of the takeoff. His website is at Mini-Cubes.com. He’s also got a Facebook page.

Both sites have links to a growing community of people and companies who hope to do business in space at down-to-earth costs.

Dick Wanner is a reporter/photographer for the Ephrata Review. He can be reached at rwanner.eph@lnpnews.com. 

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One Comment

  1. Gail

    April 17, 2019 at 12:52 pm

    Ah, yes. I knew him when.
    Great going, Joe!

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