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USU tops schools nationwide in financing space research

By Kate Rouse
The Utah Statesman
November 13, 2006
CIRRIS 1A program hardware

The National Science Foundation reported that USU spent $54,872,000 on aeronautical and astronomical research, more than any other school in the U.S.

USU spends more than any other college in the United States on aeronautical and astronomical research, at $54,872,000 in 2004, according to a survey done by the National Science Foundation. But that figure may not be all the university spends.

Charles Swenson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at USU, said, "That number represents some of the space-related activities that take place at USU and the Space Dynamics Lab. It would include things like building space hardware, but may not include things like analyzing data from space."

Swenson said the Space Dynamics Lab accounts for more than 90 percent of those dollars included in the NSF's survey.

Harry Ames, deputy director of the Space Dynamics Lab, said SDL spent around $70 million on their own in 2004. Ames said the funding comes from two primary sources: NASA and the [United States] Department of Defense.

"I would emphasize that we don't get grants. Nobody hands us money." Ames said. "We have to compete for every dollar that comes into this laboratory."

Ames said SDL currently has around 40 programs that range from tens of thousands of dollars each to in excess of almost 50 million dollars. Most programs span over several years, but only about 25 percent of them actually see space flight. "The rest are airborne, balloon, ground-based or just pure research. Not flying things, but developing things that might fly someday," Ames said.

Some of SDL's current projects include WISE (Wide-Field Infrared Sky Explorer), due to be launched for NASA in 2009, which will be the first mission since the early '80s to do a complete map of the entire cosmos in the infrared.

"We're mapping everything you see, north, south, east and west, back to 11 to 12 billion years in time. Pretty close out there to the Big Bang," Ames said.

Another program, GIFTS (Geostationary Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer) is a next-generation weather satellite that will be designed to look down at the Earth to provide detailed information on weather patterns.

SOFIE, due to be launched into low Earth orbit sometime during the next month, will look at very high-altitude ice particles in order to get an idea of global weather patterns. SOFIE is designed to look directly at the sun through Earth's atmosphere to detect the ice crystals by the way the light reflects off of them. In order to test this, the Space Dynamics Lab sports a machine capable of powering half the city of Logan. It produces a tiny pinprick of light, which would be the equivalent of looking at the sun.

SDL hosts two major international conferences: the Small Satellite Conference and the International Optical Calibration Conference, and has been growing salad greens on the international space station for years. The plants, although still edible, grow in strange ways because they don't know which way is up. Regardless of how they look, the astronauts - whose only problem in space seems to be a loss of muscle mass - still eat them.

Ames described SDL as a "non-profit independent subsidiary corporation of USU," which means the lab can operate as its own independent corporation while still being owned by USU.

Even though it operates independently, faculty at USU also work with the Space Dynamics Lab. Swenson writes proposals to NASA or other organizations for grants and the Space Dynamics Lab will build the hardware. Other universities or research foundations, as well as government organizations, also commission SDL to build projects.

Most of the funding for USU faculty-directed research programs comes from grants, but according to Swenson, this only accounts for $1 million or $2 million of the entire $54 million counted in the NSF's survey. Since it is owned by USU, the NSF considers everything spent by SDL to be an expenditure of USU.

"As far as the National Science Foundation is concerned, there is no difference between USU and the Space Dynamics Lab," Swenson said.

SDL, located at Innovation Campus in North Logan, has five main buildings and employs 350 people, approximately 80 of whom are USU students.

According to the NSF survey, USU ranks 17th in the nation for all research and development expenditures at $77,996,000 in 2004.

© 2006 The Utah Statesman