Government

Atmosphere thins for UI space research

Communication with satellite on hold during shutdown

The University of Iowa has been collaborating with NASA on the HaloSat satellite, which was launched earlier this year. But with the partial government shutdown, communication with HaloSat temporarily halted this week. (Photo from University of Iowa)
The University of Iowa has been collaborating with NASA on the HaloSat satellite, which was launched earlier this year. But with the partial government shutdown, communication with HaloSat temporarily halted this week. (Photo from University of Iowa)

As days tick by without a deal to reopen parts of the government, University of Iowa Physics and Astronomy Associate Professor Jasper Halekas grows increasingly nervous.

It’s not that he has to halt his research — all of which is funded by NASA — so long as he still has the government money in hand.

But the shutdown freezes all new federal support, including for approved grants or contracts funded in one-year or shorter increments that are supposed to have payments coming.

“The longer this shutdown lasts, the more likely this will occur and the more dire the effects will be,” Halekas said in an email Thursday. “I’m already looking nervously at a couple of grants/contracts on which I am supposed to receive new funding in the next month. I don’t know when I’ll see that funding.”

If the money dries up, the work stops.

The UI Department of Physics and Astronomy gets significant research support from NASA. In the 2018 budget year, NASA provided $8.8 million for UI research and scholarly activities. The university also gets support from federal sources like the National Institutes of Health, which provided $180.4 million in the last budget year; the Department of Education, which provided $24.5 million last year; and the National Science Foundation, which provided $7.8 million.

Curtailing new support “directly affects our ability to carry out our research, as well as to pay our employees,” Halekas said.

And it affects faculty collaboration, as many Iowa researchers work with scientists directly employed by government agencies like NASA.

“All of them are unable to work at all during the shutdown,” he said.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

About 16,700 NASA staffers, or 96 percent of the workforce, are furloughed during the shutdown, according to the American Federation of Government Employees.

UI Physics and Astronomy Professor Philip Kaaret said that affects his work on the HaloSat, a cube satellite launched earlier this year in collaboration with NASA.

Kaaret’s team operates the satellite using a NASA-run radio dish in Virginia, and they had to halt operations Wednesday due to the shutdown.

“We are hoping to get the NASA employees who run the dish classified as essential, so that they can go back to work,” Kaaret said.

If that doesn’t happen within a day or two, the satellite will begin losing observations.

“If the satellite goes for six days without hearing from us, it will reset itself and we’ll have to spend a day recovering from that once we can talk to it again,” he said.

And, Halekas warned, the ramifications “will get considerably worse if it goes on for a long period of time.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

CONTINUE READING

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.