After the amazing visit at NREL, I didn’t think there was any way to avoid an anti-climactic afternoon, but the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado at Boulder sustained our interest and our energy. LASP is one of seven research institutes at UC Boulder. They don’t give degrees, but they do employ a large number of undergraduate and graduate students. Their positions are highly sought-after, so they get the cream of the crop. The aerospace industry has a considerable presence in Colorado, but my Beloved Husband’s UK citizenship precluded our visiting those companies. LASP works extensively on satellites, so they proved to be a magnificent alternative.
The entrance hall of the LASP laboratory building was almost a mini-Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, including an engineering back-up version of the Mariner 6 and 7 satellites that explored the polar regions of Mars. At the time it was built, solar cells were so incredibly expensive that they didn’t have the funds to put real solar cells on the mock-up. There are a few real solar cells to test the circuits, but the rest are just ceramic tiles. My BH pointed out that at the Smithsonian, they don’t allow you behind the ropes to take pictures, but here we were encouraged to duck behind for the best photo.
At some point, we were discussing the TOMS satellites that map stratospheric ozone, and one of our hosts told us a great story. He explained that the Mariner explorations of Mars demonstrated that there was interesting chemistry that happened at the planetary poles. It was because of this discovery on another planet that satellites and ground-based operations started measuring and monitoring the atmospheric composition at Earth’s poles. If not for the missions to Mars, we might not have discovered the Antarctic ozone hole, and we wouldn’t have had a chance to act to fix the problem. That is an excellent argument for the need to explore other planets.
Our hosts at LASP were three magnificently quintessential nerds. One was a physicist, one an electrical engineer, and one an aerospace engineer. My BH and I recognized kindred spirits who simply loved their jobs and loved to talk with people who were interested and excited by the topic. They showed us around the entrance hall including miniatures of a number of satellites that had carried their instruments. In display cases, they also pointed out examples of their efforts to reduce the size and power consumption of numerous instrument. As they pointed out, in space there is no chance to go and repair a malfunctioning system, so everything needs to work reliably a million times or more.
The instruments they build work both on satellites that face the sun and satellites that face the Earth. At the moment, LASP is doing part of the work on the next generation of GOES weather satellites, called GOES-R. Over the United States, there is always one GEOS weather satellite over the East Coast, one over the West Coast, a third that can be moved about in case of failure of one of the first two, and yet another ready to be launched in case of mass failure of multiple satellites. Thus for the next generation technology, the LASP group is preparing four replicate EXIS instruments, one for each of the four new GOES-R satellites. For a lab that previously felt that they specialized in prototypes, or instruments made a single time for a specific purpose, this was a new development.
The first of the EXIS instruments that we saw sat proudly on a cart behind a window for all to see. Of all the many instruments to go on the new GOES-R satellites, EXIS is the first to be ready, and they are rather proud of beating out all the other companies for the honor. (I saw the press release after I returned to DC and was pretty thrilled that I understood the significance.) This EXIS instrument detects solar flares as part of the larger Space Weather project. Solar flares in the extreme ultraviolet range are often precursors to Coronal Mass Ejections, which is the sun spitting out matter. If these ejections are directed toward the Earth, they can cause massive electromagnetic disruptions in power grids and communication systems, so these solar flares are the first indicators that service providers should take measures to prevent problems in the next day or two.
The second EXIS instrument was at NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) on the East Coast undergoing some calibration, but the third EXIS was being aligned in a different lab at LASP. We donned static-proof coats to enter the optics lab, and we had a delightful time chatting with the lead optic engineer inside. I asked if it was tedious to align the same type of instrument multiple times, but I wasn’t surprised to be told that even though each instrument was built to the same specifications, each unit had its own quirks and personalities that made it slightly different from the others. My BH and I agreed that it was fascinating to see all the stages of construction of this instrument that would fly on a satellite and help monitor space weather.
Everyone agreed that constructing and optimizing these instruments, which would fly in Low Earth Orbit, was far easier than satellites that fly farther out and must be tested and calibrated in vacuum chambers. This picture shows one of the huge vacuum chambers that is used for those high orbit satellite instruments.
Another function performed at LASP is that they are mission control for several different satellites. Students get extensive training before they are able to work in mission control, and there is always a staff scientist present for supervision, but I couldn’t help thinking what an amazing college job that must be. There are three low Earth orbit satellites that pass through 15 times per day, and then the Kepler satellite, which trails behind Earth, only checks in every few days. Kepler monitors the same area of space all the time, and by looking for variations in light intensity, Kepler is designed to look for Earth-like planets. I’ve included a picture of me with our spectacular hosts in front of Kepler’s mission control room.
A mutual interest in the space program is what sparked the romance between my BH and I, so it will always be a special part of our relationship. It was particularly wonderful to share that affection for space with such gifted scientists and engineers who so generously gave their time and knowledge to us on our visit.
I found one more picture after I finished writing, and since it is another example of quirky scientists and engineers, I thought I’d include it as well.