USU lab's projects often soar — into space

By Wendy Leonard
Deseret News
June 15, 2008

On board the space shuttle Discovery, which returned to Earth Saturday, was technology designed and created by students and faculty at Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory.

Not only has the Logan school designed, built and flown more experiments into space than any other university in the world, but Thermal Management Technologies Director J. Clair Batty said USU students are learning to enterprise and commercialize their space-age products.

"Utah State University is a unique and precious diamond in Utah's higher education diadem," Batty said during Friday's Sunrise Sessions meeting, which included researchers, community leaders and aerospace industry workers. He added that the laboratory is one of the "glittering facets of that diamond."

The not-for-profit corporation operated by USU is funded almost entirely by projects contracted by the federal government, which bring in $50 million in research and development expenditures annually. They are responsible for creating thermal imaging technology used on multiple missions to photograph space, as well as several components of infrared telescopes such as flexible thermal links, thermal switches and cooling panels.

Four hundred employees, including 100 students, work in the laboratory and have access to the state-of-the-art facility.

"We all know business is about making dreams a reality," said Batty, a mechanical and aerospace engineering adjunct professor at USU. His inquiry began, along with much of the world's, with the television production of "Star Trek," which "stirred our emotions and fired up our imaginations."

He has worked with students and at the laboratory developing technology using cryogenically cooled, space-deployed infrared telescopes to enhance the space experience. The group has experienced many successes as well as some failures, which Batty says helps them learn even more.

"'Difficult' is a challenge, and 'impossible' just takes a little longer," he said.

The Logan facility, often referred to as "Utah Space University," goes up against a "competitive field of heavy-hitters" on space-related research and development contracts, Batty said, often winning out.

Technology aboard a thermal imaging telescope, called SABER, put out by the SDL was meant to last only two years but has outlasted the expectancy and will have endured seven years in space this December.

"The number of people on the planet who are weird enough to dream about flexible thermal links and cooling panels is mercifully small," Batty said. "However, here is a nucleus of highly motivated ... people who are dreaming big dreams."

Its endeavors are starting to reach further into the private sector as USU's lab is doing projects with companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, but Batty says he dreams of using plastic cooling panels in the workings of computers and refrigerators, perhaps preventing frost from damaging lettuce.

Crews see a future for their products in automobiles and in communications and medical devices, computers and various other aerospace implements. "By creating commercial enterprises based on university research, we dream of shining more light onto Utah and that jewel of a university in Logan and its research laboratories," he said.

USU's Sunrise Sessions is a breakfast lecture series held quarterly and designed to highlight timely and cutting-edge research conducted at the university. Friday's lecture was sponsored by Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield of Utah.

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