USU space lab brings in $60 million payload to Utah

By Travis Reed
Associated Press
February 19, 2004

A sensor unit, foreground, built from scratch by students, will be launched into space in August.
Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

LOGAN — If the United States establishes a permanent site on the moon to be used as a launching pad to Mars, future astronauts will have researchers at Utah State University to thank for some of their equipment. And for their vegetables.

What started more than 40 years ago with a faculty members' involvement in the V-2 rocket project has turned the school with 20,000 undergraduate students into one of the nation's biggest players in the aerospace industry.

Now, Utah State's Space Dynamics Laboratory brings in more than $60 million each year in grants and research funding and has positioned itself among the nation's top colleges in scoring space projects. It is one of only a handful of schools designated as University Affiliated Research Centers, which allows the lab to secure government contracts with much less bureaucracy than other contenders.

The Space Dynamics Laboratory exists in 173,000 square feet of laboratories, conference rooms and offices just off the Utah State campus. There, about 350 employees, including 80 students, work on projects commissioned by the aeronautics and defense clients, including the federal government. "If (further exploration) is to happen, they will need instrumentation," said lab director Michael D. Pavich. "We build them — that's our specialty." While lab officials are still not sure what role they will play in future space exploration, researchers already have their hands full with projects for the military — including next-generation satellites for the U.S. and Russia that work in tandem — and the International Space Station.

NASA and the Department of Defense look to the school to test instruments and to make sure they are able to withstand the stress and temperature rigors of space and air travel. Besides instruments, most of the lab's current work with the space program involves building sensors — primarily infrared, but also ultraviolet, hyperspectral and beyond. The lab has developed thousands of sensors and supporting devices for more than 400 space and aircraft projects. Those include a project developed in conjunction with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that will use infrared sensors to provide a more comprehensive survey of space than was previously possible. It will be used by scientists trying to determine the origins of planets and galaxies.

Utah State is also at the forefront of space agricultural research. "They have such good expertise," said NASA scientist Charles Barnes. "Their strength is their ability to do extremely well in a competitive forum." The school is helping astronauts take peas, radishes, tomatoes and mizuna — a bitter-tasting Japanese lettuce — into space. The lab's Lada project, developed by students, uses foot-high growth chambers and a computer which, together, are no larger than a footstool. In these chambers, astronauts — using loose, pebbly soil that resembles unrefined kitty litter — can grow plants in the zero gravity atmosphere of space. The benefits, besides food and research, are also recreational and humanizing for astronauts living in a cold, foreign atmosphere. "You might be able to take care of nutritional needs out of a tube, but there's a psychological value to this," said Harry Ames, SDL deputy director.

The lab is also heading the United States' end of a project between the U.S. Department of Defense and the Russian Ministry of Defense. Together, the two are building satellites that will operate in sync to take photographs of the Earth. The pictures will be used to beef up surveillance and early warning systems for both military uses and natural disasters. School officials say it's unique because it's the only project shared by the U.S. and Russian defense departments.

In a neighboring building, the lab uses a roughly 12-foot-long, high-tech chamber to test satellites and instruments under conditions similar to space. Having such highly specialized equipment comes in handy when the lab has to devise new equipment on the fly for NASA, like fixing a problem on the International Space Station. The station picks up static electricity more quickly than it can be emitted, creating a potentially dangerous environment for astronauts working outside of it. Professor Charles Swenson's group was charged with creating monitoring devices, which would become a permanent part of the space station, as quickly and cheaply as possible, and that would function where additional pieces were not designed to work or be installed. "It was a lot of pressure," Swenson said of the 10-month project, done about 14 months ahead of normal. "They basically came to us and said, 'We don't even have an idea of how it would work."'

The lab's sensing devices and software have enabled photography advancements aboard F-18 fighters, allowing the military to download aerial images in step frames and real time. Previously, personnel had to take the photographs, develop them and paste everything together to compose a comprehensive picture. But the new technology helps the military more efficiently scout targets, determine what's been hit and perform reconnaissance.

Retired generals and other former military personnel hold high-level positions at the high-security lab — partly because of their expertise in the defense and aerospace industries. Even without renewed interest in space encouraged by President Bush's call last month for a return to the moon and travel to Mars sometime afterward, Pavich says he expects the lab's defense and aerospace research to further raise Utah State's national profile. "We've gotten to the size now where we're going in several directions," he said. "As long as we keep the focus on answering problems that are important . . . I think we'll continue to be successful."

©2004 Associated Press