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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Engineering the search for interstellar objects

Famous for finding gold-filled shipwrecks and sunken submarines, a Spokane firm’s latest discovery may have come from the cosmos.

Williamson & Associates, a deep-sea engineering firm based in Seattle, moved about 280 miles inland to cement a foundation for growth.

Though they are still making headline-worthy discoveries, the firms’ new owners Max Schlereth, who mans the Seattle location, and Rob Millsap, who returned to his hometown Spokane, have ushered in many changes.

The two worked under the original owners, Art Wright and Mike Williamson, who are considered luminary engineers.

Their specialty was subsea acoustic sonar. The company used its one-of-a-kind equipment, refracted sound waves and sophisticated sensors to make remarkable underwater discoveries.

Known as the ship of gold, the engineering firm located the SS Central America in 1988.

The mail-carrier sank in 1857 during a hurricane.

It was carrying 578 passengers; some 3 tons of gold from the California gold rush; perhaps an equal amount carried by the passengers; and another 15 tons rumored to be in a secret U.S. Army shipment, according to the Seattle Times.

The ordeal was the inspiration for the 1998 bestseller, “Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea: The History and Discovery of the World’s Richest Shipwreck.”

Williamson and Wright are also credited for discovering two submarines: the INS Dekar, an Israeli submarine that sank in 1968 along with its 69-man crew, and the USS Grunion which sank in 1942, killing 70 sailors.

These search missions were expensive and involved risk, both for the safety of those involved and for the future of the company, Williamson said.

“Historically, the profit margins are very narrow on these high-risk, at-sea operations that we’ve been doing for years,” he said. “But we kept on, because we loved it.”

Yardarm broken

Before Schlereth and Millsap took over, the 40-year-old company had two operational “arms”: risky at-sea operations and equipment manufacturing.

When ownership changed, the at-sea arm was severed.

“Manufacturing had been a good way to support our offshore habits,” Williamson said. “But when the young turks (Millsap and Schlereth) took over, they were less interested in our deep-water search and recovery work, rightfully so, because profitability is better just sitting ashore and building stuff.”

The new manufacturing era of Williamson & Associates primarily focuses on selling three types of products: two different core sampling drilling systems and underwater imaging equipment.

The smaller core sampler, about the size of a phone booth, is designed to be mounted on a remotely operated vehicle to explore deep sea mineral deposits.

The bigger core sampler, about the size of an RV, is lowered to the seafloor and allows remote operators to use hydraulic power and special cameras that focus the drilling process to obtain samples.

Milsap said the underwater-camera products are the company’s “bread and butter.” With a built-in battery, the cameras focus and record sea-life and objects without the need of an operator.

Demand is growing for the product for agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, fishing companies and many universities, Millsap said.

Lilac City venture

Since 2019, the company has been manufacturing those cameras in Spokane. But, it’s not listed on the company website or marketed in any way.

Millsap calls the Spokane location the “behind-the-curtain business” but is home to most of the employees and operations.

The company moved inland to save on costs. Millsap referenced the Boeing factory for helping to contribute to what he called a manufacturing ecosystem that made materials more expensive.

Plus, Millsap wanted to get back to Spokane.

“My path into this industry started” in a local machine shop “twisting wrenches and sweeping the floor,” Millsap said.

The Spokane firm encompasses about 600 square feet in the front of a diesel mechanic shop owned by Millsap’s neighbor.

With its current business model and modest accommodations, the company generates up to $2 million a year with just six employees.

In the next five years, the company hopes to generate up to $10 million in revenue and more than triple its staff, he said.

Those new employees will work in a new, larger manufacturing facility to be built within the next year.

Determined to stay in Spokane, Millsap is eyeing a site near the Spokane International Airport.

Though the current business model is the catalyst for long-term growth, a recent project is reminiscent of their earlier, riskier years.

Going interstellar

This summer, the firm caused a rift within the global scientific community with its work to uncover remnants of an interstellar meteor, meaning it came from outside of our solar system.

Proven traces would be the first such discovery in history.

The project teamed the engineers with Avi Loeb, a distinguished Harvard astrophysics and astronomy professor, and his team.

The search took place off the coast of Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where an object disintegrated on Jan. 8, 2014, upon its entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Because of its trajectory and incredible velocity, the United States Space Command confirmed the object was an interstellar body in a March 2022 letter.

Now they had to find it.

The project included dragging a magnetic sled, about the size of a door, on the ocean floor across an area of about 10,000 square kilometers (about 6,200 square miles) in an attempt to retrieve round, microscopic structures from the meteor known as spherules.

Except for figuring out how to keep the sled on the seafloor, it couldn’t have been more of a success, Loeb said.

“That was magic as far as I’m concerned because once they got it right they got it right, always,” Loeb said. “It’s an art to maneuver the ship in such a way that the tension of the cable will not lift the sled.

“Otherwise it’s like flying a kite.”

Success of the mission was credited to the company’s expertise in underwater imaging.

The engineers’ trademark cameras allowed the team to monitor the sled on the bottom, allowing them to make adjustments as it searched for particles, Millsap said.

Once, during the search, the engineers resorted to melting lead in a tin can over a campfire to provide enough weight to keep the sled on the bottom.

“It’s an amazing accomplishment, because it was not at all clear that we will get anything,” Loeb said. “And so the fact that it was successful, I think, is a testimony to everyone’s commitment to the project.”

After collecting ocean sediment, it was time for the astronomers to take over.

The astronomers sifted through volcanic ash, soot and other materials and observed what was left under a microscope.

The discovery

After much anticipation, the group found exactly what the entire project was looking for: spherules.

Comprised mostly of iron, Loeb and his team studied the spherule’s isotopic and elemental makeup to determine whether they came from a interstellar meteor. Loeb said the paper, which will undergo peer review, should be published within a month.

Since discovering 50 on the boat with the Washington engineers, Loeb’s team has since uncovered a total of 700 spherules.

Loeb previously has been criticized by others in his field for speculating about finding evidence from extraterrestrial spacecraft. He hopes the spherules may prove his theories.

“Just imagine the Voyager, the spacecraft that we sent to interstellar space, colliding with another planet, then found a few billion years later,” Loeb said.

Aware of Loeb’s imaginative motivations, Millsap and Schlereth’s team remained focused on the task at hand.

“Our role is to design and operate our equipment safely and effectively. That has nothing to do with aliens,” Millsap said, “but is firmly rooted in just practical engineering.”

The Harvard team and Williamson & Associates both plan to return to Papua New Guinea waters to retrieve a larger chunk of the meteor.

The discovery of spherules was a “big step off the ledge” for the new owners, born out of the success of company’s eccentric roots, Millsap said.

“We’re building cool stuff, and doing interesting things all over the world,” Millsap said. It’s “just on a little smaller scale and a little less prone to taking big risks.”