A University Exploring the Universe


SAN FRANCISCO — As one of the three finalists in NASA’s New Frontiers program, principal investigator Michael Drake is enthusiastic about the prospect of sending a spacecraft to an asteroid to carve off pieces and bring them to Earth for study. The primitive asteroid in question may hold important clues to the origins of life as well as the formation of the solar system, Drake said.

Until NASA officials select the New Frontiers mission next year, Drake and his team will be delving into technical details, feasibility studies and management plans for the mission known as the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer spacecraft, or OSIRIS-REX.

At the same time, Drake oversees the work of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) in Tucson, a facility established in 1960 to house telescopes designed to search the Moon for Apollo landing sites. Since that time, LPL has been involved in every major NASA planetary mission, building instruments, managing science and, in the case of the Phoenix Mars Lander, serving as the first public university to lead the surface operations of a planetary mission.

LPL officials built several of the instruments used by the Phoenix Mars Lander to probe the Martian soil for signs of water and to evaluate the planet’s potential to support life, including imaging equipment, a mass spectrometer and miniature ovens designed to drive off gases and measure their composition.

The Phoenix Mars Lander was LPL’s most ambitious undertaking. In 2005, at the height of preparations for that mission, which included construction of sophisticated instruments, LPL’s budget peaked at approximately $40 million. The same year, the University of Arizona led the nation in physical science research dollars, beating perennial powerhouses like the Johns Hopkins University and the California Institute of Technology, according to the National Science Foundation.

“When you build those instruments, you spend a lot of money employing a lot of very talented people,” Drake said. “Then you go into the operations phase once you launch. We spend less money to conduct surface operations.”

Currently, LPL has a staff of about 300 people and operates on a budget of roughly $20 million a year from competed grants and contracts, primarily from NASA. The laboratory also counts on about $2.5 million in state funding, money that is becoming increasingly scarce due to state budget cuts.

LPL officials play an active role in ongoing planetary missions. For NASA’s Messenger mission to Mercury, LPL professor William Boynton leads the analysis of geochemical remote sensing measurements and professor emeritus Robert Strom is heading an investigation of Mercury’s geologic history and helping to analyze spectral measurements of Mercury’s surface. LPL professor Robert Brown oversees the team that is using the Cassini orbiter’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer to study the surface, rings and atmosphere of Saturn and Titan. LPL professor Alfred McEwen, director of the university’s Planetary Image Research Laboratory, is the principal investigator for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, the camera flying on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.


Lens Crafters

In addition to LPL, the University of Arizona houses the Steward Observatory. With a budget of about $8 million, the Steward Observatory owns and operates telescopes throughout the state and provides a home for the Mirror Laboratory, an organization renowned for building the largest and most aspheric telescope mirrors. “Those mirrors are the future of astronomy,” said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the university’s College of Sciences.

Astronomy professor Roger Angel, Mirror Laboratory director, established the facility in 1980 after a series of backyard experiments convinced him that he could develop large, lightweight mirrors. “The lab is unique within the university context because no university in the world runs a lab like this and unique within industry because there is no place in the world where big telescopes are made from soup to nuts,” Angel said. “We start by melting glass and we end by sending to the mountaintop a mirror that is completely finished and tested.”

The Mirror Laboratory’s current projects include construction of an 8.4-meter mirror for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, an instrument designed to obtain continuous imagery of the southern sky from its perch in Chile, and seven 8.4-meter primary mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope, an international cooperative effort led by the Carnegie Institution of Washington to study the formation of galaxies, evolution of planets and properties of dark matter.

The enormous size and scope of the Magellan project, which will cost more than half a billion dollars, creates its own challenges, Angel said. Since no one can predict how quickly participating research institutions will be able to raise the money, the project’s schedule is uncertain. That makes it difficult to retain a highly skilled staff. “You can’t send them off for a couple of years because we don’t have any mirrors to make,” he explained. “The biggest challenge is keeping the whole operation intact. We have managed to do that for the last 20 years, and the prospects look reasonably decent that we can keep the operation flourishing.”

One new project that is keeping Mirror Laboratory employees busy is an effort to develop reflectors for solar energy concentrators. “It’s completely different [from the telescope mirrors] because these reflectors have to be extremely lightweight and inexpensive,” said Angel, a MacArthur Fellow who also serves as chief executive of REhnu Solar Energy, a company he established to use university-licensed technology to create low-cost solar electric energy systems.