The billionaire space industry investors prefer going to the large space labs, like the Jet Propulsion lab to see how spacecraft are being built and meet with the lead scientist or engineers on the projects and discuss their own research. Paul Allen who is funding the construction of a small satellite launcher called the Stratolauncher at Mojave Air and Space Port, and Richard Branson were early investors in commercial space. In May, Google acquired SkyBox, a small satellite earth imaging company for $5000 million in cash. SkyBox CEO, Tom Ingersol, is co-founder of Universal Space Network (USN). Bill Gaubatz and Pete Conrad, the men I reported on in my 7.15.14 article, who were deeply involved in the Delta-Clipper program, were early collaborators in USN. Universal Space Network is a global satellite tracking and control business. Tom started Skybox with the help of three students from Stanford university who were building small satellites. I have reported on the small satellite building going on here at NMSU and at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.
The point of making connections for faculty and students when we toured the Planet Labs small satellite manufacturing facility, is to give them a look at how the commercial labs build and test their technologies. We are creating the billionaires of the future here at our universities. Paul Allen and Richard Branson would have loved the opportunities we give students here in southern New Mexico. Yes, we even fund sixth graders and their teachers to do space focused research. President Lincoln knew when he established the Land Grant Program, and later on when the Space Grant program was started, public higher education is the foundation of our nation’s ability to create, innovate, and develop technologies to improve the life on humans on earth.
NASA climbs mountains, but first they climb the hills or explore caves. Earth scientists have identified forms of life that survive in extreme environments, including those resistant to high levels of radiation including nuclear radiation. Understand earth, its evolution and composition, helps us understand not only how our planet was formed, but also understand the formation of other planets in and outside our solar system.
Scientists are pretty certain, liquid water is critical for life as we know it. Within the bounds of our solar system, we have evidence of water on the moon, and have observed water on planetary moons. The Kepler telescope’s astronomers have now confirmed nearly two thousand exoplanets, planets that exist outside our solar system. Commercialization of low earth orbit (LEO), the location of most of the earth observation satellites and the space station, is allowing NASA to spend its funds exploring beyond LEO.
Mars is Earthlike , close to earth, and it enables NASA scientists and engineers to answer one of the fundamental questions of this space age using spacecraft and technologies that are extremely sensitive. Are we alone? The search for life is one reason we are going to Mars. Currently we have the Mars Science Lab Curiosity roving the surface of Mars, along with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Spirit is now silent, but the Opportunity rover now holds the off-Earth roving distance record of 25 miles of driving. All three of these rovers were built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The Curiosity rover is exploring Gale crater, where a huge water lake existed billions of years ago. The July, 2014 National Geographic reported on this and related research, conducted by Penelope Boston. Penny is a member of the faculty at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. New Mexico Space Grant (NMSGC) has funded Penny to do research on caves in New Mexico and Mexico. She and Nancy Chanover, a member of the faculty at NMSU just completed a 3 year study for NMSGC. The research sought to “understand relationship between rock surface roughness, reflectivity, and the presence of biomarkers indicative of extant or extinct life. This investigation addresses two of the fundamental questions that guide NASA’s solar system exploration program: What are the characteristics of the solar system that lead to habitable environments and How and where could life begin and evolve in the solar system? “
The team used a 3-D light detection and ranging mapping system (LIDAR) to characterize the rocks in the cave and then sent a spectrometer to determine the composition of the rocks. Once they had a map of the cave, they sent a tunable suitcase sized spectrometer into the cave. The development and use of these instruments in similar environments to caves being studied on Mars will enhance research capabilities of all involved universities, their faculty and students. It is one thing to go out and buy a 3D camera, it is another thing entirely to build your own and send it into an extreme environment. Think of that next time you watch a 3D movie. It could be an NMSU student who built the set, after building the camera.