A 50-Year History of Training the Next Generation of Space Scientists


BERKELEY, Calif. — As the Space Sciences Laboratory (SSL) at the University of California, Berkeley, celebrates its 50th anniversary, laboratory scientists are looking back at a broad array of accomplishments and looking forward to dozens of missions both large and small.

“We are constantly developing new concepts for scientific instruments,” said SSL Director Stuart Bale, an associate physics professor. “We test those instruments on rockets or balloons and bootstrap our way into space.”

Many SSL experiments are conceived by graduate students and carried aloft on sounding rockets and balloons. Results from those initial tests often inspire new experiments which, over time, evolve into innovative scientific tools, Bale said.

More than a dozen SSL instruments and detectors are operating on U.S. and international spacecraft, including NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer, Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopy Explorer, Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration and the European Space Agency’s four-spacecraft Cluster mission. In May, a far ultraviolet detector built by SSL scientists and engineers was installed on the Hubble Space Telescope’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph. SSL officials are designing instruments for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution satellite set for launch in 2013, and the Radiation Belt Storm Probes mission scheduled for launch in 2012.

In addition to developing instruments, SSL officials also have been tasked in recent years with overseeing entire space agency projects, Bale said. For example, Robert Lin, former SSL director and principal investigator for NASA’s ReuvenRamaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager (RHESSI), has managed every aspect of the project from instrument design and satellite integration to flight operations and data analysis. RHESSI, launched in 2002 as part of the Small Explorer program, continues to investigate solar flares and the sun’s coronal mass ejections.

Similarly, SSL officials designed, built and managed the Time History of Events and Macro-scale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) satellite constellation, five identical probes launched on a single Delta 2 rocket in 2007 to investigate major disruptions in the Earth’s magnetic field called geomagnetic substorms. Originally, the THEMIS mission was scheduled to conclude in 2009. That mission is likely to be extended, however, to allow three of the THEMIS spacecraft to continue their investigations of geomagnetic events, while the remaining two probes move into lunar orbit to conduct studies of energetic particles near the Moon as part of a new program dubbed Acceleration Reconnection and Turbulence and Electrodynamics of the Moon’s Interaction with the Sun (ARTEMIS), Bale said.

SSL also serves as mission control for the space agency’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission, a satellite scheduled for launch in 2011 aboard Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Pegasus rocket to study high-energy X-ray emissions and black holes.

As those large projects continue, other teams of SSL scientists are developing instruments and attitude control systems for the shoebox-size satellites known as CubeSats. One project, CubeSat for Ions, Neutrals, Electrons and Magnetic fields (CINEMA), is a collaborative effort with the Imperial College London’s Space Magnetometer Laboratory, South Korea’s Kyung Hee University and the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

SSL received an $890,000 award from the National Science Foundation for a three-year program to build and launch the CINEMA satellite for space weather research. As part of that effort, Kyung Hee University plans to build and send into orbit a second identical spacecraft, according to an Aug. 30 award from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences.

This CubeSat research is particularly important because constellations of small satellites are the wave of the future, said Forrest Mozer, a physicist who joined the laboratory in 1966. “A decade from now, there will be missions with 50 spacecraft constellations. They will certainly have to be of this scale.”

During his long tenure at SSL, Mozer said the laboratory grew from a small research group without its own building into a prominent academic institution with “remarkable breadth and depth” that has awarded 300 doctorate degrees for space science research. “When I came here, this was a laboratory on paper, but not much of a lab in reality,” Mozer said. “The idea that you could go to a university and build instruments to fly on rockets or satellites or balloons was a pretty new idea in 1966.”

Now, SSL, which is housed in two buildings perched high in the Berkeley hills overlooking the San Francisco Bay, is the hub of activity for approximately 350 people including a dozen professors, more than 100 graduate and undergraduate students, professional scientists, engineers and administrative staff, Mozer said. SSL features an 18-meter high bay for assembly of spacecraft and scientific instruments as well as an 11-meter dish antenna for satellite communications.

In recent years, the SSL budget usually has ranged from $40 million to $50 million a year, Bale said, with approximately 90 percent of the funding coming from NASA and the remainder from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California and individual donors.

As to the future, Bale said it’s impossible to predict how SSL’s mission may expand or change. “There is no master plan,” Bale said. “We are not interested in unbridled growth. We are just interested in science. We want to develop new measurement concepts, make measurements and get data. We can’t predict where that will take us.”