May 12, 2020

Emily Roberts

Arizona is making a vital contribution to space exploration

It’s well known that Arizona was basically the ground zero of the US space program back in the 1960s. Mission Control may have been in Houston, and the Apollo rockets launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida, but years of training and research in the volcanic desert around Flagstaff prepped the first astronauts for the experience of walking on the moon, as well as testing much of the equipment they used.

What’s less publicized is the degree to which Arizona has remained at the heart of the space exploration and space travel sector since, playing crucial roles in both NASA-sponsored projects and the booming field of privately sponsored space travel and research. Today, both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona contribute hugely to space exploration, and the state is also home to a number of private companies heavily involved in the field. The unique qualities of the Arizona landscape also make it a natural home for some of the world’s leading observatories, as well as ongoing training and research around Meteor Crater and elsewhere.

Crater fields

The Arizona desert has long been regarded as the most moon-like landscape on Earth, and for that reason has been used by NASA for training and research for over 50 years. The agency originally came to Flagstaff because of the proximity of Meteor Crater but went on to create other “crater fields” using dynamite. Thirty five miles east of the city, Meteor Crater is 4000 feet across and 700 feet deep and is still used for training purposes. These days, however, it is more likely to be robots that are tested and acclimatized to the lunar surface in the crater’s bowels.

Home of the telescopes

The clear skies and low humidity in Arizona make the state perfect for watching the stars. Kitt Peak National Observatory, 56 miles south-west of Tucson, continues to make essential contributions to our understanding of the universe, including research into dark matter. The same can be said of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, where Clyde Tombaugh first identified Pluto in 1930, and which continues to expand its operations.

The Large Binocular Telescope at Mount Graham International Observatory is the most advanced optical telescope in the world, with twin mirrors measuring over 27 feet each in diameter. The Submillimeter telescope at Mount Graham is one of eight radio telescopes around the world that make up the Event Horizon Telescope, responsible for capturing the first ever image of a black hole in 2019.

Professional and amateur astronomers in Arizona are helped by the fact that Arizona is home to four international dark sky communities, committed to minimizing light pollution at night. Flagstaff was the first in the world, in 2001; since then, Sedona, Oak Creek and Fountain Hills have also joined the 17 dark sky communities across the globe.

University research and development

The relationship between NASA and both of Arizona’s major universities goes back decades, but these institutions have also contributed to the private space exploration sector. The chairman and CEO of Voyager Space Holdings, Dylan Taylor, graduated from Tau Beta Phi with a BS in engineering from the honors college at the University of Arizona. Now based in Denver, Taylor remains one of the most important investors and thought leaders on private space exploration.

The University is currently engaged in manufacturing the 27-foot mirrors for what will be the world’s largest telescope – the giant Magellan Telescope in Northern Chile. It is also leading the OSIRIS-REX asteroid mission to bring asteroid samples back to Earth. Their spacecraft landed near to the asteroid in 2018 and is expected to return in 2023. In recent years the University of Arizona led the Phoenix Mars Mission in 2008, which confirmed that Mars had water and nutrients capable of supporting life, and sent a spacecraft to Jupiter in 2016 for a year-long study.

Over at Arizona State University, the School of Earth and Space Exploration is a hub of interdisciplinary research, combining astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, geosciences, planetary sciences, exploration systems engineering and more. Its Mars Space Flight Facility is creating and using instruments on the Mars spacecraft, including Professor Philip Christensen’s Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS), as used on NASA’s Mars Odyssey. It is currently involved with the car-size Curiosity Rover and the Mars 2020 Rover.

Private enterprise

Arizona firms involved in space exploration include Orbital ATK (now part of Northrop Grumman), which has been making small payload systems for nearly 25 years. They include rockets for satellite launches and supply capsules for the International Space Station. KinetX Aerospace in Tempe is the only private contractor licensed to create deep space navigation systems for NASA, while Honeywell Aerospace in Phoenix has also created many key components for satellites and spacecraft. Tucson is home to Paragon Space Development Corporation, focusing on environmental controls for extreme and hazardous environments, and World View Enterprises, looking into low-cost solutions for commercial space travel, research and communications using helium balloons.

It’s clear that Arizona has contributed to space exploration in many ways over the years, and that it continues to do so. From its universities to its observatories and beyond, Arizona is the gateway to the stars.