A diverse portfolio of scientific skills –

from gauging the turbulence of the space environment and its impact on Earth to fostering hands-on student instrument fabrication and real-life spacecraft operations –

can be found at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) here at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

LASP’s history is rooted in work spawned in the late 1940s. At that post-World War II juncture – pre-Sputnik and pre-NASA – U.S. military-supported studies of the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the

sun were undertaken via sounding rockets topped by university-built precision-pointing science gear.

LASP became an outgrowth of that research in 1965 when it was given a new building on campus and its current name.

The lab’s goal for the

21st century

is to make discoveries through the research and technology efforts of its atmospheric, space physics, solar, planetary, engineering and mission operations divisions.

“I’m a really big believer in having a good balance between theory and modeling, data analysis and experimentation,” LASP Director Daniel Baker

told Space News. Since taking

that position in 1994, Baker

has worked to create a diversified set

of skills

at LASP with strong programs in planetary science, atmospheric, solar and space physics, as well as energetic particle investigations and leading work in cosmic dust detection.

“We are both keeping our finger on the pulse of current space science interests, but also trying to steer the course a little bit,” Baker said.

Current technology development work at LASP

includes improving long booms for detecting fields in space by using a more capable kind of antenna material, as well as mastering remote sensing devices that explore the coupling of various space phenomena, like solar wind into the atmosphere, not only on Earth, but other planets too.

“I think if you put all your eggs in one technology basket, you probably aren’t going to be so successful,” Baker said


Bruce Jakosky, the lab’s associate d

irector for


views the true strength of LASP as the melding of different aspects of space science. It starts with asking a fundamental science question and carrying out theoretical and lab work, followed by crafting an instrument designed to result in

scientific insight.

The next step is

moving to on-campus operation of spacecraft and then publishing data, he said.

“It’s sort of a one-stop shop,” Jakosky told Space News, and the strength of that is combining all the different aspects of scientific inquiry to get a broad understanding of how it all fits together, he said.

said there’s a strong interdisciplinary aspect to the university’s space science research efforts –

one that threads through LASP, but also crosses over and intermingles with other sets of expertise at the university.

“We’re sort of in a sweet spot” with people interacting with people outside of their discipline, Jakosky said.

Valley of death

The scientific and technical skills that are available at several

organizations within the vicinity of LASP has led to a number of partnerships, Baker said.

“I’m delighted Colorado is prominent in the space industry” as evidenced by neighboring Ball Aerospace, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, SpaceDev’sStarsys and others, he said.

LASP also has strong scientific collaborations

with such organizations as

the National Center for Atmospheric Research and relationships with federal agencies like

the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In particular, LASP’s partnering with NOAA is increasing the prospect of an end-to-end prediction capability for space weather, he said.

By combining its expertise in space physics with its skill in

empirical modeling, LASP is tackling the thorny problem of predicting the actions of energetic gusts of solar wind. Progress is being made on this front, Baker said, providing some

useful steps needed to improve forecasting of

space weather conditions to support spacewalk decision-making and provide advance warning for future crews on the Moon.

Operational space weather forecasting is an arena that still lacks

a concerted effort, clarity of roles among

agencies and steady financial support, Baker said.

“There are a billion things we can’t do as well as we’d like. But there are a lot of things that I think are getting better,” Baker suggested. “Without the investment, I think it’s going to continue to be this valley of death between research and operations.”

Focus on data

On the issue of global climate change, Baker said

“there’s been tremendous coalescence of opinion over just the last five years or so.” While there is a lessening of scientific debate that, indeed, human-caused impact on Earth’s climate is taking place, there’s healthy room for more scientific questioning and probing, he said.

“I think this is another area where NASA, NOAA –

all the agencies that are involved –

really have to start working much more cooperatively and try to find the right roles for each of them,” Baker said

. “We as humans are performing an experiment that’s a dangerous one and hard to reverse. I’m fine with us [scientists] doing research in parallel. But I think we need to start making better policy decisions too.”

LASP built two of the three instruments for the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere mission to gauge how solar activity alters interactions between the surface of Earth and the upper atmosphere. It was launched this past April with the project data center located at Hampton University in Hampton, Va.

The a

im of the mission is to study from space the iridescent polar clouds referred to as “night-shining” clouds or noctilucent clouds, when they are viewed by observers on the ground.

“If climate is changing as rapidly as we think, we should see a much greater prevalence of these polar noctilucent clouds. It’s a great experiment to perform and will give excellent information about the present state of affairs and trends,” Baker said.

Baker is also executive director of the Electronic Geophysical Year, or eGY for short. The purpose of this international effort is to get

the geoscientific community to shape an “eScience” approach to issues of data stewardship: open access to data, data preservation, data discovery, data rescue, capacity building and outreach.

There’s a mind-boggling amount of information produced by Earth-based and space-based assets, Baker explained, “but how do we take in all this data and make sense of that information.” Given microprocessors, software and the Internet of today, he said, free and open access to data on a world-wide basis has become effectively infinite and instantaneous.

A central feature of eGY is development of Virtual Observatories, “to take data, covert that into information, and then convert that information into knowledge … and then convert that into wisdom for policymakers,” Baker said. “Today, the greatest advances are coming, not from the cores of each of the disciplines, but from the boundaries.”

The philosophy of eGY is cultivating

vast and growing collections of cross-disciplinary digital information to better understand and respond to complex Earth system phenomena that influence human survival.

Beyond the classroom

Along with space science research, designing and building science instruments, Baker emphasized that a LASP hallmark is fostering strong student involvement.

For example, LASP’s Mission Operations and Data Systems Division enables students to run all aspects of spacecraft operations, while producing world-class science data products.


currently is flying four satellites, the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere

, Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment, QuikSCAT

and ICESat.

To date, LASP has operated eight

spacecraft with other missions to come on the books, like NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which is scheduled to be launched in 2009.

That spacecraft will scout for Earth-size and smaller planets in close-proximity to their host star.

“Students get a much more profound educational experience than they would ever obtain just in the classroom alone,” Baker said. “It is work force development, student education, hands-on training … whatever you want to call it. Agencies need to recognize that that’s an investment they need to make or else there’s not going to be a future for the space program. I think it’s as simple as that.”

For more information on LASP, go to: Concerning the Electronic Geophysical Year, go to:

LASP at a Glance


Achieve world leadership by identifying and addressing key questions in planetary, atmospheric, solar influences and space sciences

Parent Organization:

 University of Colorado, Boulder

Top Official:

Dan Baker, director

Year Established:

1965, evolving from the Upper Atmosphere Lab created in 1948


Boulder, Colo.

Current Budget:

$55 million


393 (tenure track faculty, research personnel, graduate students and undergraduate students)