Millions of miles away and dragging a broken wheel, the Mars rover Spirit illustrates how the stars have aligned for Arizona and its growing position in space research and exploration. Besides the engineering miracle of functioning on just three working wheels, Spirit’s broken fourth appendage is unintentionally digging a trench, unearthing fresh proof the Red Planet once held water and the inklings of life.
Spirit, along with its twin rover, Opportunity, has been operating on the surface of Mars for more than five years, far longer than engineers predicted. In another happy accident, dust devils have routinely cleansed the solar panels of Opportunity, extending its life and its ability to transmit data and images of Mars. That’s something researchers did not expect, or plan for.
“That’s just great engineering — pure and simple,” says Jack Farmer, an Arizona State University professor conducting research in astrobiology within the university’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE). “It’s been a great twist of fate.”
While Spirit and Opportunity might be enjoying a little luck, it isn’t a coincidence that SESE has been quietly blazing a new path for ASU, and in the process elevating the school’s prominence with NASA and a cadre of impressed scientists and researchers.
Kip Hodges came to ASU three years ago to be the founding director of SESE and brought with him an impressive curriculum vitae that includes more than 20 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In less than three years, ASU’s reputation has risen among its peers, and in the process fostered an academic environment that appeals to some of the nation’s top engineering and research talent. Today, the school continues to conduct groundbreaking experiments and research that merges earth and space sciences with engineering and high-technology processes.
“The vision that has emerged from SESE is one that fuses science and engineering to explore space and the function of our home world, and show us how and where we might evolve in the future,” Hodges says. SESE pairs two already impressive ASU disciplines: geological sciences with astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology.
“Among other things, we look at the fingerprints of ancient time — rocks, ocean sediments — study these and look at how life came to be here and the impact we as humans are having on it,” adds SESE Associate Professor Ariel Anbar, a biogeochemist interested in the evolution of the Earth’s environment. From an economic standpoint, Hodges says that while all the research — the trips to Mars and the search for how we came to be — is key to ASU, it also plays a huge role in the economy of the state and the Southwest. Partnerships to engineer a Mars rover, for instance, can impact several vendors and businesses across many levels. In Arizona, ASU has already worked with Honeywell, for instance, and aerospace and manufacturing titan General Dynamics has built transmitters and transponders to assist in retrieving the data and images from Mars.
The Phoenix Has Landed
Like an asteroid impact, the economic effects of space research extend far and wide. The Arizona Aerospace, Defense and Avionics Industry reports that Arizona ranks eighth in the U.S. in aerospace and defense industry employment and fourth in the employment of full-time workers. Industry figures show these jobs pay more than 52 percent higher than Arizona’s average wage. A recent Battelle study pins aerospace and the related research industries in the Grand Canyon State as one of Arizona’s core competencies. In fact, the state has one of the largest concentrations of telescopes in the world and a legacy of more than 50 missions.
It’s not just the Valley and ASU that reap the rewards of space research and exploration. Scientists, researchers and engineers in Southern Arizona have long played a vital role in the state’s space industry. One of the most visible projects, the Phoenix Mars Mission, put Arizona at the forefront of national media and space research interests.
The Mars Phoenix Lander descended on the Red Planet in May 2008, in full view of a worldwide audience awed by the entire process. The multiagency mission was led by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, with guidance from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Phoenix Mars mission was the first to be led by a university, and one that Michael Drake, director of UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, says is the perfect example of what can be accomplished when a multitude of international agencies, governments and universities work together to accomplish a single goal — successful planetary and space research and all the far-reaching implications here on Earth.
Drake says projects such as the Phoenix Mars mission bring to light the pioneering research and feats of engineering being conducted in Arizona, which pump significant dollars into the state’s economy. “These types of projects have a huge ripple effect,” Drake notes, adding that UA and ASU continue to work hand in-hand to build Arizona’s leading position in space research and exploration. But, he adds, it is an investment that must come with a commitment from state and federal leaders who must realize that money invested today will likely have a significant impact years down the road. Simply put, he adds, it’s an investment in the future of the state, our universities and our economy.
“The business community understands this,” Drake says. “Besides all of the university employees and researchers, we employ a variety of small businesses — mainly in Arizona. We keep the wealth here.”
George Rieke, a regents professor of astronomy and deputy director of the Steward Observatory at UA, says that unlike many universities working with NASA on space missions already in place, UA has had central roles in building and operating the missions, as well as reaping the scientific benefits.
“Perhaps the most dramatic example was the construction of the Mars Phoenix Lander and its operation from a control center in Tucson,” Rieke says. “As a result, our involvement with NASA brings high technology right into our midst, along with the public interest and excitement in the resulting scientific advances. This interest, in turn, will bring interesting, high-paying jobs to us in the form of a broad spectrum of technology-based businesses.”
The impact of space research is significant in Southern Arizona. According to a recent study by the Arizona Arts, Sciences and Technology Academy, astronomy and space-related research injected more than $250 million into the state’s economy during fiscal 2006. In addition, over a 10-year period from 1998 to 2007, NASA awarded UA $444.3 million in research grants and space exploration dollars. Arizona’s clear skies and moderate desert climate continue to drive much of the growth and interest in further space-related endeavors. Besides the effects in Southern Arizona, there has been a steady increase in the monetary impact to ASU from NASA. In 2000, ASU was awarded $9.9 million in NASA grants, nearly $10.1 million in 2005 and $16.8 million in 2008. Since 2000, ASU has been the recipient of more than $121 million from NASA.
Grant money fuels research, engages future scientists and continues ASU’s cutting-edge work. Hodges, likes to point out that grant money isn’t confined to ASU. When new faculty members or researchers come to ASU to work at SESE, they bring their families, buy homes, groceries and contribute in many ways to the economy of the state. Currently, there are 42 faculty and more than 60 research scientists and postdoctoral scholars at SESE, with 97 graduate and 96 undergraduate students.
Hodges says that while the state has rightly invested heavily in the biomedical sector — and recorded some impressive economic advantages and revenue sources such as TGen — many states around the U.S. are competing for some of the same slices of the biomed pie. However, Arizona has the opportunity to be a magnet for space research and exploration.
“The tactical advantage of space science and research is that not many people are playing in that sandbox,” Hodges adds. “There is a great deal to be gained from an investment perspective. The opportunities are fantastic here.”
Future research is also compelling. The upcoming Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission is scheduled to launch this spring. LRO is the first spacecraft to be built as part of NASA’s return to the moon, and SESE has been intimately involved in preparations for this mission. One of the orbiter’s seven instruments, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC), was designed by one of the school’s professors, a project that has brought in nearly $10.4 million from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory since 2007. The school’s lunar center has also been working with the Johnson Space Center to scan and create an online digital archive of all the original Apollo flight films.
In 2008, SESE was awarded $14 million in NASA grants, which equates to about 10 percent of all grants awarded to ASU, and about 20 percent of grants awarded to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, ASU’s largest college. Unlike UA, ASU does not operate any telescopes. Also of note is the fact that $14 million is a hefty sum to be awarded when a mission is not being run.
“This is work force development at its finest,” Hodges says. “We cannot lose out on these opportunities and the momentum we’ve created.” Drake at UA agrees the state has seen significant momentum, but expresses caution and dismay over funding reductions by state lawmakers, who are wrestling with huge budget shortfalls and have identified significant cuts in Arizona’s universities.
“The state Legislature is unwittingly disregarding an enormous amount of money that comes into — and stays in Arizona — from space research and exploration,” he says. “If we can’t compete and keep the people and talent we have, the state is shorting itself of huge economic opportunities. It is very short sighted.”
Sumner Starrfield is a regent professor at SESE and a computational astrophysicist who studies stellar explosions looking for clues on where life originated on Earth. He notes that ASU and UA have made a great deal of progress in attracting and retaining faculty and, in the process, nurturing the next generation of researchers. While the state remains in the throes of a severe budget crisis, officials also contend that further cuts to Arizona’s educational system will put some brakes on the current progress.
“ASU has worked hard to get to where we are today,” Starrfield says. “The grant money generated by the school spreads throughout the economy of Arizona. It is important for us to remember what we are trying to accomplish and how it affects our future.”
Drake notes that while Arizona has made significant inroads with biotechnology job creation and research, space exploration remains an untapped galaxy of economic wealth.
“I always like to say, ‘If a field has a name, it’s too late to get into the game.’ The train has already left the station. That’s where we are at in space research and exploration in Arizona,” he says. “We are pioneering and creating a new economy here. We just need some help to continue to build something great.”