News

Utah State Laboratory Has Long History of Space, Aero Projects

By Turner Brinton, Washington
Space News
September 17, 2007

When the National Science Foundation surveyed U.S. university spending on aeronautical and astronautical engineering research for 2004, Utah State University topped the list thanks in no small part to the campus' Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL), a non-profit research corporation that works on civilian and military projects. For the past five decades, SDL has delivered sensors and subsystems for more than 400 space- and aircraft- based payloads.

Most of the lab's research is done at its 18,000 square meter facility on the main campus in Logan, Utah, where they specialize in electro-optical sensor systems, data reconnaissance systems, calibration services and thermal management systems.

The largest current project at SDL is NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), a telescope that will survey the sky in four infrared bands to search for the most luminous galaxies in the universe, cool stars close to the sun and asteroids larger than 3 kilometers in the main belt. The project began in 2004, and WISE will be sent into a polar orbit 525 kilometers above Earth aboard a NASA Delta 2 rocket in November 2009.

SDL's THOR chamber

Space Dynamics Laboratory technicians (above) insert an instrument into the laboratory's Thermal Optical Research chamber for testing.

The WISE payload is more than 1.8 meters tall and weighs more than 350 kilograms. The 40 centimeter solid hydrogencooled telescope will operate at 256.7 degrees Celsius, about 15 degrees above absolute zero. After a one-month check-out phase when WISE enters orbit, the telescope will spend six months taking millions of images of hundreds ofmillions ofspace objects.

WISE program managerJohn Elwell predicted the life span of the telescope would be around 13 months, but the fuel needed to keep the telescope at temperatures low enough to use the infrared instrument would not last much longer than that.

The WISE program was put in serious jeopardy last year when NASA cut funding for the whole project by nearly 60 percent, to $30 million. But SDL received close to the amount of funding they were expecting. Though some employees who worked on WISE were let go, manpower adjustments at the lab resulted in a netgainof45 newworkers in 2007, according to Michael Pavich, SDL's director and a retired U.S. Air Force major general.

The $20 million in 2007 NASA funding for WISE represents 40 percent of this year's SDL budget. Most of that money is being spent on integrating all of the payload components and testing and calibrating the instrument. The lab is anticipating less money for 2008, between $11 million and $15 million, as there will be less work to do as the project nears completion. The lab has received a total of around $60 million for the project.

Just three years ago, most of the lab's funding came from three agencies: the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, NASA and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, each respectively comprising 41 percent, 33 percent and 21 percent of SDL's budget. But this year's funding is much more diversified. Aside from the 40 percent of the budget made up by WISE, 18 percent comes from the U.S. Naval Research Lab, 17 percent from the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, 15 percent from the Missile Defense Agency, 10 percent from Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and smaller amounts from a handful of other agencies.

Pavich attributes the lab's wider focus to NASA's recent cutback in space science funding, saying the agency recently has not funded many small- or mediumsized missions - the kind the lab is best suited to accommodate.

Another major program SDL has a hand in is NASA's Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere mission, which aims to better scientists' understanding of noctilucent clouds, which are Earth's highest clouds and thought to contain clues to global climate change. SDL designed, built and integrated one of the mission's three instruments, the Solar Occultation for Ice Experiment. This instrument has been collecting and transmitting atmospheric data since its launch in April. Though results of the experiment will not be revealed until the end of the year, Pavich said he is delighted with the preliminary data that has come in.

"We could satisfy 70 percent of the science objectives of the mission with data received in the first week," he said.

SDL is involved heavily in work with small satellites. They currently are under subcontract with Lockheed Martin Space Sys- tems, of Sunnyvale, Calif., to provide engineering and development support for the Air Force Research Lab's Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian Evaluating Local Space program. It is a small experimental satellite that would orbit in close proximity to a host spacecraft that is high above the Earth in geosynchronous orbit and keep tabs on its surrounding space environment. A flight demonstration is scheduled for late 2008 or early 2009.

SDL also teams up with organizations outside the United States. The lab has been working with the Moscow-based Russian Institute of Biomedical Problems on the Optimization of Root Zone Substrates program, a potting soil physics experiment in space. The experiment, now aboard the international space station, is intended to improve scientists' understanding of how plants can grow in microgravity environments. Because water hovers around the center of a soil container in space instead of draining out the bottom, plants' roots are deprived of oxygen. The experiment was funded by NASA and built by Utah State University students employed by SDL, according to the lab.

While it is probably unfeasible to grow enough plants on a space mission to provide full sustenance for the astronauts aboard, the psychological benefits ofthose plants are significant, Pavich said. "If you're going to send astronauts in a capsule to Mars, what are some of the things you can do? ... Tending the garden is having a task, and harvesting the crops is something to look forward to every week."

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