Space exploration a top priority for the University of Arizona

On July 20th, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon ­– a story known to most Americans. However, looking at the framework of the Apollo 11 mission, Arizona has a greater tie to the moon landing that many do not know. “The U of A was so integral in helping make [the moon landing] happen,” Dr. Robert Robbins, president of the University of Arizona, said.

Astronomer Gerard Kuiper came to the University of Arizona from the University of Chicago and founded the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) in 1960, two years after NASA was launched. Three years later, Kuiper’s team of students and other researchers created a detailed lunar map. 

NASA contracted with the University of Arizona to map out the ideal landing site for the first landing on the moon, and the reason they came here was because we had the telescopes and we had the cameras to be able to do the job,” Robbins said. 

Fifty years later, the University of Arizona and NASA continue to partner on space exploration, making the Tucson university a leader in the industry. “We’ve been fortunate to be a part of every NASA [planetary] project that’s ever been done,” Robbins remarked. 

OSIRIS-REx prior to launch on September 8, 2016. Photo courtesy of the University of Arizona

OSIRIS-REx, a seven-year quest to retrieve part of an asteroid and bring it back to earth, is one of the university’s latest projects.OSIRIS-REx is run out of LPL, and that is really unusual that NASA would allow a university the responsibility to run a mission,” Robbins said.

According to Robbins, the mission’s spacecraft is currently in gravitational orbit with the asteroid Bennu. The spacecraft has taken images of the surface to help determine where to land and take a sample from. The university chose this specific asteroid due to its favorable proximity to the Sun, its supply of carbon and that it has not changed much in 4.5 billion years. The sample will allow scientists to discover what resources were available that long ago and more insights into the origins of the universe.

Bennu, however, is not the only asteroid the Wildcat Nation is working on. More than a decade ago, the U.S. Congress mandated a goal to identify all potentially hazardous near Earth objects (NEOs) that are bigger than 140 meters. The university has once again partnered with NASA to come up with a solution: NEOCam. This project would result in an infrared telescope that would look for these objects and trace them to ensure they will not harm Earth. 

“As we map these objects, whether they be natural or human launched into space, it’s going to be important for somebody to keep track and catalog those things and I think the University of Arizona has an obligation and an opportunity to do that because we’re blessed with so much talent,” Robbins said. “If you look at our strategic plan [NEOCam] is probably the number one priority for us as a university on the research side. Because it is in our wheelhouse we think that it’s achievable.”

The university recently hired Amy Mainzer, one of the world’s leading researchers of asteroids, to join LPL as principal investigator for NEOCam. Mainzer is also the principal investigator for NEOWISE, a space telescope to help characterize asteroids and comets by size and composition.

Though these projects have years left, the university is always looking toward more space exploration. Commercialization of mining asteroids for precious metals, new moon missions and human health of people who fly in micro-gravity are all projects that Robbins could foresee in the future for the university.

Robbins emphasized that in order to make these projects possible, it is important that the students of today become educated and well-prepared to take on the research of tomorrow.

“The ability to train the next generation of explorers to discover new knowledge that might help us understand the origins of the universe, all those things are very important for the University and for the world,” Robbins said. “I think because we’re discovering new knowledge and translating in many cases that new knowledge into commercialized products that will help society be better.”

Photo courtesy of the University of Arizona

Morgan Carr

Graham Bosch

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