Hoffer, NASA team on satellite servicing technology

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Ken Hoffer (left), CEO, and Bob Carrell, president and Chief Operating Officer of Hoffer Flow Controls Inc., discuss uses for some of their company's flowmeters (foreground), Thursday.


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Imagine replacing your car after its first tank of gas ran out, and you'd have some sense of the dilemma facing the owners of satellites swirling around the Earth.

NASA is trying to fix that problem, however, and it's brought in Elizabeth City's own Hoffer Flow Controls to help.

Hoffer aims to deliver a specialized flowmeter to the “Restore-L” project under NASA's Satellite Servicing Projects Division in mid-2018, Hoffer President Bob Carrell said Thursday. Joined by company founder and CEO Ken Hoffer and others, Carrell explained the company is contracted with NASA on a project that could lower satellite costs and facilitate longer space missions.

Satellites are increasingly vital for both public and private sector purposes, but they have to be replaced when they run out of the fuel that maintains their orbits. That's because it's more than a little tricky to refuel something that's traveling thousands of miles an hour in the vacuum of space.

Restore-L is a step to fixing that problem, however. Per a NASA web page, Restore-L seeks to develop an autonomous, robotic spacecraft that can dock with orbiting satellites to refuel and service them. Hoffer's role in all of this is providing Restore-L with the flowmeters that will measure fuel flow. The company has been involved with the project since 2015, when it responded to NASA's request for information and then a formal request for a quote, Carrell explained.

As with other components Hoffer makes, precision and durability are vital for the Restore-L flowmeters. The flowmeter needs to ensure enough fuel is flowing at the right rate, and the part needs to withstand years-long missions without human maintenance, he explained. Hoffer is also working on an electronic sensor that can handle the radiation of space, he noted.

Carrell continued that Restore-L is intended as a demonstration of the viability of autonomous satellite servicing. If all goes well after the project launches in 2019 or 2020, NASA will look to license the technology to private companies for maintaining satellites and getting the most out of multi-million-dollar investments.

That's a particularly exciting prospect for Hoffer. If Restore-L leads to fleets of maintenance vehicles, they may very well standardize Hoffer's technology, opening the door to a lot more business, Carrell explained.

In another exciting prospect, Carrell and Ken Hoffer noted NASA's Restore-L project could have implications for other space missions, meaning the company might play a small part in other missions, including to Mars.

“It's like a fairy tale, what we've heard their goal is, to send up a vehicle to the moon, land on the moon, and from the moon they're going to shoot to Mars,” Hoffer said.

Ken Hoffer and Carrell also noted that NASA's not a new customer for the company, who's provided flowmeters for other missions. That includes the robust flowmeters needed to withstand high-pressure fueling for rockets, they noted.

In another high-tech application for Hoffer's flowmeters, Carrell and North American Sales Vice President Sandee Kelly shared that Hoffer provides flowmeters for coolant for the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, or LANSCE, for short. LANSCE is a lab within the U.S. Department of Energy that's home to “one of the nation's most powerful linear accelerators.” That accelerator deals with radioactive and high-energy particles, often used for “atom smashing,” as Carrell put it, and has applications in medicine, weapons research and more.

Accelerator components that span thousands of feet all have to be kept cool, and have to be kept cool with demineralized water, they said. Demineralized water can be corrosive, Kelly said, and Hoffer's flowmeters had to be built to withstand it. A company press release notes the flowmeters' meters were built with stainless steel and hard carbon composite sleeve bearings.

Hoffer Flow Controls was founded in 1969 in New Jersey, relocating to Elizabeth City in 1990, according to Marketing Manager Janna Critcher. The company employs 90 and produces about 3,200 flowmeters a year for various industries, including oil and gas. Roughly half its meters are exported to other countries, she also reported.