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Space And Tech Converge As Seattle Hosts Major Space Conference

Blue Origin
Blue Origin is one of several Seattle-area space companies participating int the NewSpace 2016 conference.

The Puget Sound region’s burgeoning space sector will be in the spotlight this week as rocket makers, telescope designers and asteroid miners head to Seattle for a major commercial space industry conference.

The NewSpace conferencehas been held in Silicon Valley for about a decade, but starting this year it will alternate between the Bay Area and Seattle.

That’s in recognition of the growing cluster of companies here working on space technologies. Hannah Kerner, executive director of conference organizer Space Frontier Foundation, says the presence of Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon has helped nourish space entrepreneurship.

“We really had a perfect storm in Washington, and a space cluster has really grown out of the foundations of aerospace and technology in Seattle,” she said.

Kerner says companies like Blue Origin, Vulcan Aerospace and Planetary Resources are not just building rockets – they’re breaking ground in areas like software and analytics.

Planetary Resourcesis an example of the convergence of space and tech: Its main business is the promise of mining water and minerals from asteroids, but as they work up to that, they are using space-based technology for industrial applications on earth, such as crop science.

Peter Marquez, vice president of global engagement for Planetary Resources, says though his company makes satellites, they have the mindset of a software company.

“We’re launching an alpha versions to see and test out technologies. Then we launch a beta version to perfect it. And there’s a great culture for that in Seattle – I mean, Planetary is based in Redmond. There happens to be another very large software company in Redmond as well, and they do great things,” he said.

Hannah Kerner says that trend will only fuel more growth in the region.

“And that looks much more like what tech companies and tech investors are used to seeing,” she said.

The conference begins Tuesday and will include a panel called “Uniquely Seattle,” about why the Northwest is becoming one of the nation’s major space hubs. 

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.