USU’s Space Dynamics Laboratory / 50 years of putting U.S.A into space
By Jeff Demoss
June 23, 2009
NORTH LOGAN, Utah – In 1947, 10 years before Russia successfully launched the first rockets into space, scientists and engineers from Utah were among those working toward a similar goal in the New Mexico desert.
Their efforts proved to be the genesis of one of the nation’s premier space research and development facilities.
From early rocket experiments to monitoring Earth’s climate, the Space Dynamics Laboratory housed at Utah State University has been a key research and development partner with the federal government for half a century.
The lab has designed gadgets that have hitched rides on hundreds of space shuttle missions and unmanned rocket flights. Its creations range from climate sensors that stay relatively close to Earth to cameras that help explore the frontiers of the universe.
The science can get pretty complex, but the lab’s basic mission and goals are simple, said Doug Lemon, who was named executive vice president and director of laboratories last year.
“You have to measure stuff to understand it,” Lemon said. “That’s what we do here.”
As it marks its 50th anniversary this month, the SDL encompasses more than 200,000 square feet of buildings and employs more than 450 scientists, engineers, USU students and others. The lab brings in more than $50 million in annual revenue, primarily through government contracts.
The lab traces its origins to the earliest U.S. space experiments utilizing German V‐2 rockets seized after World War II. The experiments led to the formation of the Upper Air Research Laboratory at the University of Utah, which designed instruments for rockets launched from White Sands Missile Range, N.M., in the 1940s and 1950s.
USU courtesy photo
The SDL‐Built Wide‐field Infrared Survey Explorer instrument was completed and shipped last month in preparation for launch later this year.
From those experiments came the Electro‐Dynamics Laboratories at USU, which eventually became the SDL, in June 1959. SDL is a unit of the USU Research Foundation, a nonprofit research corporation owned by the university.
While it answers to a board of trustees that includes USU faculty members, it is allowed to function as a commercial entity as well as a research facility, said Forrest Fackrell, executive vice president for business operations.
“Unlike a university, we operate like a company,” Fackrell said. “We enjoy the autonomy, but we also like to take advantage of the smart people on campus.”
The lab has employed more than 1,500 USU students over the years. Lemon said it focuses its efforts in three key areas: discovery, security and climate.
SDL‐designed instruments have been integral to the nation’s space exploration efforts and remain an important piece of the puzzle today.
“There’s been that drive for discovery throughout history, and I think there’s still a need,” Lemon said.
The lab recently completed and shipped an instrument that will create the most detailed map of the night sky to date. Known as the Wide‐field Infrared Survey Explorer, the 6‐foot explorer will use infrared beams to survey space and locate objects too dim to show up in previous surveys.
WISE is scheduled to launch in November. Its main purpose is to help maximize the work of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch within five years. It will provide a blueprint of unprecedented detail as a sort of guide for the multibillion‐dollar telescope, said Jim Marshall, director of business development for the SDL.
“These things have a limited lifetime in space,” Marshall said. “WISE will help (the James Webb telescope) make the most of that time.”
Security has been the SDL’s longest‐standing mission, dating back to the Cold War, when it started working on missile‐detecting sensors for U.S. military satellites.
A primary challenge today is making the satellites themselves smaller. To that end, the lab has designed prototypes about the size of a loaf of bread, but with more capability than their hulking predecessors.
“The future is about delivering smaller, less expensive payloads in a shorter time frame,” Lemon said.
The lab also works on technologies for direct conflicts on the ground and in the air.
One important project is software that can take data from multiple sensors and create a “mosaic” scene of battlefields in real time. Such a system can track enemy movements, help reduce casualties in battle by discerning between hostiles and innocents, and provide other strategic benefits, Lemon said.
The lab has also created a super‐sturdy camera to be used on unmanned aerial vehicles, the small drone planes expected to play a major role in future military operations, and has even built a prototype drone of its own.
While the political debate over human‐caused climate change rages on, the SDL is working to obtain actual data that could answer some questions.
The lab is working on sensors that measure Earth’s average temperature over time; monitor how much solar energy the planet is absorbing versus how much it radiates back out; and one that is currently studying the climatological impact of clouds high in the atmosphere.
SDL officials are keeping an especially close eye on an instrument that has been gathering data for about eight years on the effects of solar radiation on Earth’s atmosphere. They’re hoping it makes it to 11 years, which would give a full set of data from a complete solar cycle.
The data could be invaluable in determining whether human activity is changing the climate beyond the natural influence of the sun, Marshall said.
“This will go down as the first in history if it makes the cycle,” he said. “It would make a significant contribution to understanding global climate change.”
While most of the economy has suffered recently, Fackrell said, the SDL staff has grown 20 percent in the past year. He credits that success to the lab’s efforts to reach customers in a broader range of industries.
“We’re in better shape today because we’re more diversified,” he said, adding that the lab has more than 170 active programs.
He said 2009 has already been a banner year for the lab.
In addition to spinning off its first two commercial companies, it joined the Utah Research Institute, a consortium of Utah universities, state government and industry partners that counts Weber State University among its members.
With changes in federal spending patterns coming under a new administration, the fact that the SDL has positioned itself to be more agile in the marketplace should work to its advantage, Marshall said.
“We face the same threats, but new priorities. Our challenge is to see new opportunities in those changing priorities.”
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