Education

University of Iowa wins its largest-ever grant worth $115 million

'These missions will do big science'

Craig Kletzing teaches College Physics I in Van Allen Hall. (University of Iowa)
Craig Kletzing teaches College Physics I in Van Allen Hall. (University of Iowa)

IOWA CITY — In its endeavor to unlock mysteries involving the sun and its impact on space, Earth and humankind — concerning issues such as astronaut safety, radio communication, GPS signals and utility grids — NASA again is tapping University of Iowa expertise and awarding the UI its largest-ever external research grant in the process.

This time, to the tune of $115 million.

NASA on Thursday called UI physicist Craig Kletzing, who was in Germany for a meeting, to report his team had won a contract to help study the “mysterious, powerful interactions between the magnetic fields of the sun and Earth,” according to UI spokesman Richard Lewis.

The UI-led mission is one of two NASA is funding to advance its understanding of the sun. The other, receiving $165 million, will study how the sun drives energy into the solar system, while Kletzing’s project will research the Earth’s response.

“These missions will do big science,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters, said in a news release. “But they’re also special because they come in small packages, which means that we can launch them together and get more research for the price of a single launch.”

Kletzing couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

In a statement, he called the award and the project it’s funding “a career milestone for me personally.”

His UI team includes physics and astronomy professors and scientists Jasper Halekas, George Hospodarsky, Scott Bounds, Jeff Dolan, Dan Crawford and Rich Dvorsky, along with accountant Carol Preston and compliance specialist Loren LeClair.

The project is called TRACERS — for Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites. It’s part of NASA’s larger Explorers Program, which two years ago identified nine proposals it wanted to conceptualize for potential missions.

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The earlier iteration of the UI’s TRACERS concept won $1.25 million from NASA in 2017 to flesh out its proposal and vie for the hundreds of millions in funding to launch a mission.

“What we are studying and producing is a report that shows that we can actually implement the mission,” Kletzing said at the time. “That is, that we can build the instruments, spacecraft, and get a launch for the money — and that we know how to manage everything to make it happen on time and within the cost cap.”

Compelling NASA’s interest in how the sun and Earth’s magnetic fields interact are potential implications for this planet. If not for a magnetic bubble surrounding Earth, supersonic heat winds from the sun would inflict harmful radiation.

Although Earth’s magnetic field, along with its atmosphere, blocks most of that harmful energy, some solar wind sneaks through via openings created when the Earth and sun magnetic fields touch, according to UI officials.

In those instances, solar wind pours through in regions called cusps, which have affected Earth in host of ways. They’ve producing auroras, interfered with GPS signals, shorted radio communications and, at one point, prompted an airline warning from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly at lower altitudes to avoid radiation, according to the university.

“One of the long-term goals of our space research is to evolve toward predictive ‘space weather’ models to improve our ability to utilize space as a resource,” Kletzing said in a statement. “The science that TRACERS studies will be essential to achieve this goal.”

Its partner project — known as PUNCH, for Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere — will focus on the sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, and how it makes solar wind, according to NASA. PUNCH involves four suitcase-sized satellites that will image and track the solar wind as it leaves the sun.

“We carefully selected these two missions not only because of the high-class science they can do in their own right, but because they will work well together with the other heliophysics spacecraft advancing NASA’s mission to protect astronauts, space technology and life down here on Earth,” NASA’s Zurbuchen said in a statement.

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The two missions, both of which will be managed by NASA’s Explorers Program Office in Maryland, will launch no later than August 2022.

John Keller, interim vice president for research and dean of the UI Graduate College, called this grant a “monumental accomplishment” for Kletzing, his team, and the university as a whole.

“Not only is it the single-largest contract award in the history of this institution, but the work will pay enormous dividends in terms of new understanding about the sun’s impact on space and planets,” Keller said in a statement. “As with (UI physicist) James Van Allen’s discovery of the radiation belts, this project again demonstrates to the world why the University of Iowa is a global leader in space science and discovery.”

Out of more than 35,000 projects awarded to UI researchers since 1965, Kletzing’s contract is the only to top $100 million — making it the single largest externally funded research project in UI history.

The next closest dates back to 1971, when Francois Abboud generated $88.5 million for his study of an array of diseases and illnesses, from anxiety to vascular damage. Abboud’s grant marked the longest continuously funded UI grant under the same principal investigator.

A more recent major UI grant came in 2004, when William Clarke landed $53.4 million for his contribution to international research on the safety and effectiveness of a treatment for Type I diabetes.

Other major grants in UI History

• $88.5 million to Francois Abboud in 1971 for study of a wide array of diseases and illnesses, including anxiety, hypertension and vascular damage

• $75.4 million to Thomas Scholz in 1998, funding the Child Health Specialty Clinics efforts to improve the health, development and well-being of children and youth with special health care needs, especially in rural areas

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• $64.1 million to Jean Robillard in 1969 to investigate areas of women’s health, therapy of prostate cancer, bone loss in anorexia, cochlear implants, gene transfer in cystic fibrosis, and homocysteine and atherosclerosis, among other issues

• $60.7 million to Bruce Gantz in 1985 for research at the Iowa Cochlear Implant Clinical Research Center into technologies that improve speech perception for adults and children who have become hearing-impaired, as well as infants who are born with hearing issues

• $53.4 million to William Clarke in 2004 supported Iowa’s contribution to an international research consortium studying the safety and effectiveness of a treatment for patients with Type 1 diabetes

• $52.1 million to Jane Paulsen in 2000 helped track 1,400 people at risk for Huntington’s disease over 12 years and looked into the earliest brain and behavioral changes in healthy adults who have the genetic mutation for Huntington’s disease and may develop the disease later in life

• $48.9 million to George Weiner in 2002 for the UI-Mayo Clinic Lymphoma Specialized Program of Research Excellence, a research collaboration focused on developing new approaches to the prevention, detection and treatment of lymphoma

• $48.3 million to George Weiner in 2000 for the Holden Comprehensive Care Center, Iowa’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center and one of only 50 in the nation

• $42.5 million to Peter Thorne in 1990 to establish and support the UI Environmental Sciences Research Center, which does research connecting the array of environmental pollutants in air, water, soil and food to human diseases and explores how to promote public health by preventing these exposures

• Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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