Sunday, May 21, 2023

CU in outer space: Missions, experiments aim at deep-space exploration

From Boulder Magazine! Photo by Bonnie Chaim.

 A half a century after the last human visitor stepped on the moon, mankind is looking to the stars again – and the University of Colorado at Boulder is leading the way.

Boulder’s hometown university is a key player in space science and exploration, and has been since 1948, when CU scientists participated in the launches of captured German V-2 rockets on suborbital missions at a missile range at White Sands, New Mexico. Since then, CU has worked with NASA (founded in 1958) and other space agencies to provide expertise, research, and personnel for expeditions beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

CU-Boulder receives $120 million in aerospace-related research yearly, and the university boasts of more than 20 aerospace-related academic departments, centers, and institutes. To date, 20 CU-Boulder scientists, faculty, and alumni have gone into space, on 52 missions. Hundreds of CU-Boulder-built scientific instruments have flown into the outer reaches as well.

One of the most significant upcoming journeys to feature CU involvement will be this spring’s Polaris Dawn launch. This commercial flight will spend up to five days in orbit and will feature the first-ever all-civilian spacewalk, laser-based communications testing, and much scientific research.

One member of the four-person crew, Mission Specialist, Sarah Gillis, 29, is an almost-Boulder native (she got here at three months of age), and a graduate of CU-Boulder. If the launch goes as scheduled, she will be the youngest American ever to orbit the Earth.

Her primary focus will be to conduct many of the 38 scheduled science and research experiments during the mission. Many are focused on human health, both on Earth and on long-duration space flights. One of her collaborators on the ground is CU Assistant Professor Torin Clark, assistant professor in BioServe Space Technologies, who with fellow CU-Boulder aerospace engineer Allie Anderson will lead five experiments that study how astronauts experience motion sickness, disorientation, and similar issues during space flight and upon their return to Earth.

“We’re studying how the astronauts’ brains are affected by the environment,” Clark says. One experiment involves inducing motion sickness. “That’s not one we’re looking forward to,” he quips.

One long-term goal of the mission? To prepare humans to return to the Moon, and to reach for a landing on Mars, by the end of this decade.

“I was in high school when Apollo 11 landed,” says Dr. Jack Burns, CU professor and head of the Network for Exploration and Space Science, a collaboration among several universities, NASA, and significant regional commercial entities such as Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin. “If you would have told me then that it would have been more than 50 years before returning, I would have said you’re crazy.”

Burns is an articulate exponent of space science and exploration, over a 50-year career that includes 21 years at CU. He posits the creation of what he terms a sustainable space program.

“When you look at the history of American space missions, Apollo was not sustained once the political goals were finished. Now we are concerned not with a one-and-done, ‘flags and footsteps’ approach, but a public and private infrastructure for space exploration, something that would grow and develop over time, including what NASA calls an Artemis base camp on the Moon by the end of the decade,” he says.

“We look to set up a radio telescope on the far side of the Moon,” Burns continues. “We will be learning to live of what the Moon provides, doing things like getting water from the ice at the poles. All this with an eye to look forward, to going to Mars.”

Of CU’s dominant affiliation with space studies, Burns says, “It just all came together. As a strong and well-known research university, it just continued to build over time. Of course,” he adds, “Boulder’s a wonderful place to live as well.”

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