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The Michigan NASA connection

Early prominence in upper atmospheric probes leads to an outsized role in the U.S. space program.| Medium Read

In 1946 Michigan Engineering professors Emerson Conlon and William Dow made a proposal to the then-newly formed United States Air Force to deploy a Langmuir Probe in the upper atmosphere to measure the state of electrons in the ionosphere. No one likely had an inkling of it at the time, but it was the success of that proposal, and those experiments, that ensured from the beginning that Michigan Engineering would play an outsized role in what would become the United States Space Program.

The first successful flight of this experiment on a V-2 rocket occurred later that year, and two research laboratories – the High Altitude Engineering Laboratory (HAEL) in the Aeronautical Engineering Department and the Space Physics Research Laboratory (SPRL) – were founded as a result. Both labs quickly developed outstanding reputations for research at the forefront of space sciences, and SPRL has since been sending into space scientific instruments that have probed Mars’ secrets, pierced the atmosphere of Jupiter, and explored Earth’s upper atmosphere.

EnlargeIllustration of Apollo 15, the moon, and an astronaut

When Sputnik launched a decade later, in 1957, Michigan Engineering was there again. Faculty member Nelson Spencer prevailed upon the U.S. “Rocket Panel” to meet at the Michigan League in Ann Arbor over a weekend to draft a proposal to define the objectives of a new civilian space agency, and the resulting legislation didn’t just create NASA – it created a flurry of science and education programs for which NASA needed partners. And Michigan Engineering was willing, able – and in the right place at the right time – yet again.

NASA quickly subsidized construction of the Space Research Building on North Campus, which – in addition to the graduate-level guided missile training it had provided to Air Force officers beginning in 1949 – would prove critical to Michigan Engineering’s early role in space exploration, which would include the 1965 All-Michigan two-man Gemini 4 crew, which orbited the Earth, and the 1971 All-Michigan three-man Apollo 15 crew, which explored the moon.

EnlargeIllustration of deconstructed Advanced Composition Explorer

And Michigan Engineering’s involvement in other NASA-related space sciences projects has continued to this day:

Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE): ACE is a space weather satellite that provides about an hour’s warning of geomagnetic storms, which can overload power grids and disrupt communications. On watch 24/7 since 1997 with assistance from a Michigan researcher.

CassiniCassini has been hanging around Saturn since 2004, sending back information about the gas giant’s magnetic tendencies and the composition of its moons. Cassini enabled Michigan researchers to learn about Titan’s methane lakes and the gas plumes that spray from the south pole of Enclaedus. View Cassini’s present position.

Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS): A Michigan-led team developed and leads the CYGNSS mission. CYGNSS is constellation of eight small satellites that can provide researchers and forecasters unprecedented information about how hurricanes intensify.

EnlargeIllustration of the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System

Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR): Scheduled to replace ACE, DSCOVR will provide higher-quality solar wind and geomagnetic storm measurements. Michigan led the development of the instruments for this advanced primary early-warning system.

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter: This orbiter has been gathering information about the moon and its features since 2009. A team of Michigan researchers is using its Cosmic Ray Telescope to determine where radiation is coming from and what it might do to human tissue.

JunoJuno arrived in July 2016 and got to work exploring how Jupiter – and other giant planets – evolved. Michigan is part of a team gathering data about Jupiter’s core, atmosphere, and magnetic fields. The mission will give insights into the earliest days of the solar system and how the heavy elements essential for Earth – and life – were distributed.

EnlargePhoto of the Juno
IMAGE:  Juno

Jupiter ICy moons Explorer (JUICE): JUICE is scheduled to launch in 2022 to investigate the icy moons of Jupiter. Michigan Engineering worked on the instruments that will send back information about magnetic fields, the plasma environment, and radio emissions.

MESSENGERIn 2015 MESSENGER confirmed the existence of ice near Mercury’s poles – and discovered the planet was shrinking. Michigan researchers, engineers, and students helped to develop MESSENGER’s Fast Imaging Plasma Analyzer (FIPS) instrument. MESSENGER ended its mission in 2015 by crashing into Mercury, as planned.

EnlargePhoto of the Solar Orbiter
IMAGE:  Solar Orbiter

Solar Orbiter: Scheduled to launch in 2017 to determine how the Sun creates and influences the heliosphere, which is the magnetic bubble that contains the solar system. Michigan leads the team’s work on the Solar Orbiter’s Heavy Ion Sensor instrument.

Probe Plus: In 2018 Solar Probe Plus will fly into the Sun’s outer atmosphere to gather data on the processes that heat the corona and accelerate solar wind. Michigan researchers will measure the properties of the plasma that the probe encounters.

VoyagerVoyager I and II have been roaming interstellar space since 1977, sending back information from the edges of our solar system. Several Michigan researchers use those measurements to research the planetary systems of Uranus and Neptune.

WINDWind has been measuring the properties of the solar wind before it reaches the Earth since 1994. Michigan Engineering is part of the team using WIND to better understand the interactions between Earth and the Sun.

Illustration of Apollo 15, the moon, and an astronaut
Illustration of deconstructed Advanced Composition Explorer
Illustration of the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System
Photo of the Juno
Photo of the Solar Orbiter
Portrait of Brad Whitehouse


Brad Whitehouse
Editor for Alumni Communications

Michigan Engineering
Communications & Marketing

(734) 647-7089

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A snail on a leaf

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