Shooting for the stars

New local nonprofit Spacepoint aims to generate interest, participation in the space industry

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Nothing captures the human imagination quite like space. Likewise, nothing holds so much possibility as space. What’s more, at no time since the 1960s has the public been so space-minded. And so it’s the perfect opportunity for Sandpoint to get into the space game, and the new local nonprofit Spacepoint is aiming to do just that.

The organization is making its debut with a sci-fi film series at the Panida Theater, screening Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on Saturday, April 1 from 6-9 p.m., but not before a special presentation from University of Idaho Professor Jason Barnes, who happens to be one of the experts on the forefront of contemporary space exploration.

“The idea at the end of the day is education — but we want it to be fun,” said Spacepoint founder Kyle Averill, who said the April 1 event is only the beginning of some big plans, which includes sci-fi film screenings timed with the seasonal equinoxes and solstices, coupled with presentations on space-related topics and knowledge contests (including a rocketry competition), with the winning team entered into the American Rocketry Challenge and earning tickets to the NASA Camp Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Even more than that, Spacepoint has a plan to establish an astronomical observatory in Sandpoint, geared toward stargazing and education.

“What I hope is that we elevate the awareness and the excitement and the opportunity of space and the space industry, and present the opportunity for folks to get into that industry — regardless of what their career path is,” Averill said. “This event [on April 1] is the introduction of Spacepoint — what is Spacepoint, why Spacepoint, when and where.”

Tickets are $20 for adults, $10 for kids, available at All proceeds benefit Spacepoint programs. Doors open at 5 p.m., with the presentation from Barnes beginning at 6 p.m., followed by the film screening.

Barnes is the deputy lead principal investigator on the multi-billion-dollar Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, where he told the Reader in an interview that the innovative quadcopter lander will search for evidence of organic material and investigate the conditions that may have led to (or continue to support) the development of life.

A rendering of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory’s Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan.

“Titan is unusual in that its atmosphere has a bunch of methane in it and it gets broken down into pretty advanced molecules,” he said, explaining that the surface of Titan is water ice frozen at very low temperatures. 

That ice has melted under certain conditions in the past — notably from the heat of a volcano located on the site of a crater created by a comet or asteroid — which Dragonfly will probe for traces of organic materials in the ice.

“We’ll be looking at what happens when you mix that organic material from the atmosphere with liquid water. We think this is an analogue to what early Earth might have looked like,” Barnes said. “That process is kind of lost to history because it happened 4 billion years ago.”

The mission, which was first proposed in 2016, received approval for funding and flight from NASA’s New Frontiers Program in 2019. Since then, Barnes has worked with Principal Investigator and Johns Hopkins University planetary scientist Elizabeth Turtle, Deputy Principal Investigator Melissa Trainer and Mission Chief Ralph Lorenz to make it a reality.

Barnes said the Dragonfly vehicle is about four meters long and weighs almost a metric ton. It has the ability to fly upwards of 100 kilometers over Titan’s surface at a time, landing and taking off from various locations around Titan’s organic sand dunes, where it will use its instruments to analyze both the surface and the uniquely thick atmosphere of the moon — which also boasts low gravity, making “flying there easier than anywhere else in the solar system,” he said. 

That kind of mobility is intended to expand the reach of the lander beyond what could typically be achieved by a wheeled or tracked rover, as “wheels and sand really aren’t a great mix,” Barnes added.

The nominal mission timeframe is for a little more than three years — flying from location to location once every month — with a launch date from Earth in June 2027 and arrival at Titan by 2034. However, Dragonfly is equipped with the same kind of nuclear battery that powers the Cassini and Voyager space probes, which means it has a “very long-lived power source,” and “there’s no real upper limit for how long we might be able to go for,” Barnes said, adding later, “This is a very capable mission.”

Audiences at the Panida will learn all about the mission — which Barnes said is geared to “answering those big questions” about the origins of life in the solar system — and take questions from attendees.

A professor of physics at University of Idaho specializing in planetary science — which he described as, “the physics of planets and planetary systems” — Barnes has been teaching and researching in Moscow since 2008, having earned his undergraduate degree in astronomy at the California Institute of Technology in 1998, followed by a Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona in 2004 and postdoctoral work at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

Saturn’s moon Titan is unique for having a thick atmosphere that rains complex molecules onto its icy surface, where there may be traces of organic materials.

He said now is a great time for people, especially in rural areas like North Idaho, to get engaged with space.

“Astronomy itself is kind of nascent here,” he said, noting that when he was hired by UI in 2008 he was the first active research astronomer in the state. 

However, “Space exploration has sort of experienced a renaissance in the last 10 years or so, with the advent of private companies reducing the cost of going to space and undertaking their own programs for commercial interests,” he added. “I’m really excited that Spacepoint has started up there in Sandpoint to be a new local astronomy association in a place that has been underserved.”

While Spacepoint’s goals are, in some cases, literally out-of-this-world, Averill emphasized that they’re also very much grounded in real-world applications and opportunities.

“If you look at the space industry, it’s open to everybody now. It’s not just scientists and people in lab coats,” said Averill, whose own background is in information technology.

He said it will be tradespeople — from electricians to plumbers, welders and home builders — who will be building the vehicles and structures critical to the future of space exploration.

“It’s across the entire economy,” he said. “The idea is to hopefully build this pipeline of talent among kids in careers that are pointed at the space industry.”

And, while kids are definitely a target audience for Spacepoint, its planned programs and projects are intended to benefit anyone, regardless of age.

“I don’t care whether people are 80 years old or 4. It doesn’t matter,” he added. “Literally all you have to do is point your career toward the space industry and that’s what we’re trying to show people.”

Meanwhile, getting hands-on with the science is critical to Spacepoint’s mission, with Averill expressing particular enthusiasm for the rocketry competition, which will be open to youths in sixth to 12th grade. An introduction to rocketry event is scheduled for Thursday, May 13, presented by Eastern Washington University Professor Marty Weiser, who specializes in mechanical engineering. Attendees will be provided with rocket kits, which they’ll build and launch. 

Teams of between three and 10 members will perform all their own design and software modeling, with designs required to meet the criteria of the National Association of Rocketry, meaning rockets must fly for a certain duration, reach a certain altitude and return a payload to Earth safely.

“For kids, that’s pretty stringent criteria,” Averill said, though the rewards are potentially astronomical.

Averill said award money upward of $100,000 is available for teams that finish in the top 10 nationally, while NASA invites the top-25 teams to its launch program education series. And of course, Spacepoint is planning to send the winning local team to Kennedy Space Center. 

If all that sounds a little out of reach for rural Northwesterners, Averill added that the winner of the national rocketry competition last year was from Washington.

“It’s really run by the kids, and that’s key,” he said. “You want a program where kids can fail, and it’s OK to fail. You collect your data about why it failed, then you fold that back into your design. You redesign, then you launch again.”

The other big project on Spacepoint’s horizon is the construction of a local observatory, which Averill said would function as a “technology demonstrator.”

In partnership with Idagon Homes owner Colin Burnett, who Averill said is designing and building the structure, the facility is envisioned as a “roll-off” observatory constructed out of a new shipping container, divided into two sections, with the telescope (or telescopes) in one part and the control room with all the necessary technology in the other.

The idea is first to construct the proof-of-concept facility somewhere accessible, with possible sites including the University of Idaho Sandpoint Organic Agriculture Center at the base of Schweitzer on North Boyer Avenue or co-locating with a local school. 

That has yet to be nailed down, but already the second phase of the project includes (hopefully) to build a bigger, more powerful observatory somewhere at altitude, such as Baldy or Schweitzer mountains.

“I think having it here in the Sandpoint area, where it’s super easy to get to, that’s probably for a Phase I technology demonstration a better way to go,” Averill said. “You could have a massive telescope up here at some point. …

“The bottom line is we’ll have one implemented this year,” he added. “That’s our objective.” 

First thing’s first, though, and that’s the Spacepoint kickoff event April 1 at the Panida. 

“Hopefully people will embrace it, see the opportunity and help us push this opportunity forward for everybody in the community,” Averill said. “As we build that demand, the skies the limit.”

Correction: The print edition of this article misidentified the entity running the NASA Dragonfly mission to Titan. It is being run by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL), in Laurel, M.D. This version has been updated to include the proper attribution.

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