Out of this world

New exhibit at planetarium to feature SDL’s achievements
By Rashae Ophus
The Herald Journal
February 8, 2005

SALT LAKE CITY — A big interactive exhibit showcasing research and achievements of the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University will fit perfectly in the Clark Planetarium, according to representatives from both entities.

Planetarium Director Seth Jarvis seeks to fill 800 square feet that have remained vacant since it opened in 2003, and he is eager to highlight the state’s vital but commonly unrecognized contributions to space exploration and technology.

“Utah is significant to the space program wildly beyond its population,” Jarvis said. “It (the display) is good communication about Utah’s role in the space program.”

Another widely unknown fact is that USU is a space grant institution, to which the federal government delegates space research.

“Utah State has an excellent reputation with NASA and throughout the U.S. (space industry), where students are involved with every aspect of the science experiments currently used in space,” said Gayle Bowen, SDL’s education outreach specialist. “Some of the basic, some of the first, some of the most important research is being done at Utah State.”

The new exhibit will highlight some of the most prestigious accomplishments. One example is SDL-created technology that allows infrared cameras to go into space. To do so, USU researchers developed alloys that could withstand the frigid climate of space, down to 450 degrees below zero.

“He (a USU researcher) had to get that shrinkage factor just right, so that as the camera cooled down it wouldn’t break,” said Charles Swenson, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the SDL. “Utah State is an expert in building cameras that work in space.”

Another SDL technology which will be featured in the exhibit is awaiting its debut in space. Called the Floating Potential Measurement Unit, this device was scheduled to launch with the space shuttle flight that was canceled after the Columbia broke apart.

On future flights the FPMU could save astronauts’ lives, Swenson said. When a space station travels or an astronaut walks through space, the movement creates something like static charge on steroids, enough to overheat the space station or injure the astronaut. Until SDL researchers invented the FPMU, nothing existed that could measure or analyze it.

“It’s a phenomenon that is different than the kinds of things we experience on Earth, so we don’t understand it that well,” Swenson said. “This will help us understand the phenomenon so we can really determine how much of a risk it is.”

A third display likely in the exhibit will feature wheat, as SDL developed the first wheat that produced fertile seeds while in space.

“A lot of people don’t realize, that’s very cool,” Swenson said. “If people are going to go out and explore space, they’re going to have to take plants with them, to recycle air and to eat.”

The 800-square-foot exhibit will be highly interactive and modular so it can be updated regularly. A $25,000 grant from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation boosted fund-raising for the project, which USU officials estimate will cost $150,000.

Jarvis can’t wait for construction to begin, for his planetarium and for USU.

“They came to us. That’s like having Santa Claus visit,” he said. “And with any luck there will be junior high kids in here looking at it, going, ”Well, goll, I know where I want to go.”

Copyright © 2005 The Herald Journal. Logan, Utah