IOWA CITY — As NASA sets its sights on a return to the moon and sending humans deeper into space, the success of those missions will depend in part on work done at the University of Iowa, the top NASA official said Friday while reviewing UI research.
“What happens here at the University of Iowa is going to be transformational for the future of human space flight and the human condition here on Earth,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
NASA plans to return to the moon by 2024 under the Artemis program, named for the twin sister of Apollo and in recognition of the desire to put a female astronaut on the moon.
Bridenstine said the mission is to go to the moon “to stay ... for long periods of time.”
“We’re going to live and work on another world,” he said. “We’re going to take what we learn on the moon onto Mars.”
Unlike the Earth, the moon does not have an atmosphere or magnetosphere protecting it from the sun’s charged particles. which can be damaging to humans. To shelter and protect astronauts as they explore space, NASA needs to better detect and predict solar events.
That’s where the UI comes in.
NASA’s $115 million grant to the UI
In June, NASA awarded UI a $115 million research grant — the largest in university history — to study the sun and its impact on space, Earth and humanity.
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The project, led by UI physicist Craig Kletzing, is called <URL destination="https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-selects-missions-to-study-our-sun-its-effects-on-space-weather">TRACERS — for Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites.
</URL>“One of the long-term goals of our space research is to evolve toward predictive ‘space weather’ models to improve our ability to use space as a resource,” Kletzing said in a statement in June. “The science that TRACERS studies will be essential to achieve this goal.”
Bridenstine said TRACER satellites will model the interactions between energy coming from the sun and how Earth is protected from it. Those models will be applied to planetary bodies, such as the moon and Mars, to better predict solar events.
“What happens here at the University of Iowa is going to enable us as an agency ... to make those predictions,” Bridenstine said.
Research has broad applications on everyday life
The research will affect more than those interested in space exploration, Bridenstine explained during a media panel.
Much of the technology humans use every day depends on space.
For example, GPS timing signals are required for banking, regulating the flow of electricity on the power grid and regulating the flow of data on wireless networks used by cellphones. Those signals are susceptible to solar anomalies known as solar flares or corona mass ejections.
A powerful solar storm — such as the Carrington Event of 1859 — would be “catastrophic” to humanity, Bridenstine said.
“Think about a day without the power grid,” he said. “Before the power grid went down, it would fry all of your electronics. Your cellphones wouldn’t work. There’d be no banking. If there’s no banking, there’s no milk in the grocery store. ... There’s no anything.”
Officials tour UI LAB
Bridenstine’s tour included a “show and tell” of equipment at Van Allen Hall, said David Miles, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, who specializes in the development of next-generation spaceflight magnetic field instruments.
Bridenstine got a close look at the university’s thermal vacuum chamber, which uses a liquid nitrogen shroud that can be cooled to minus 292 or heated to 302 degrees Fahrenheit to mimic the conditions of space.
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The chamber is used to field-test instruments built by UI scientists for NASA-funded missions and is the only piece of equipment of its kind in Iowa.
Among those joining Bridenstine were U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and U.S. Rep. David Loebsack, D-Iowa.
Both praised the work on campus and its value to the institution and to humanity.
“The physics and astronomy department has cultivated a crop of distinguished students, researchers and scientists,” Grassley said, “and NASA appreciates the deep bench of engineers, physicists, astronomers and scientists unlocking new frontiers in space right here from the Iowa heartland.”
During the media event, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, which directs and oversees the country’s space research program, said its goal is to fund “where the best people are ... whether they’re in companies, whether they’re in universities, whether they’re in NASA.”
“We want to go always where the best talent is,” he said. “In this case, it’s right here.”
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