CU-Boulder Launches Interdisciplinary Space Sciences and Engineering Initiative

Published: Feb. 24, 2009

University of Colorado at Boulder administrators have launched a comprehensive space science and engineering initiative that will bring together faculty and students across campus now participating in a broad swath of space-related research.

Known as the AeroSpace Systems Science and Engineering Initiative, or AS3E, the effort will focus on interdisciplinary research and will combine climate and environmental research conducted from Earth orbit with space weather research, planetary exploration astronomy and astrophysics. The initiative should boost research and education in science, engineering and technical space systems development across campus, said aerospace engineering science department Chair Jeffrey Forbes, who is leading the effort.

"We want to bring the huge breadth of space science and engineering research and development at CU-Boulder under one umbrella as a way to present what we do to the external world," said Forbes. The initiative is expected to increase collaboration with federal agencies like NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, as well as strengthen the already strong ties to the state and national space industry.

The initiative brings together three departments -- aerospace engineering sciences, astrophysical and planetary sciences, and atmospheric and oceanic sciences, said Forbes. It also includes campus institutes engaged in space-related research, including the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy.

Despite the slumping economy, the federal stimulus package may provide some funding for the new CU initiative, which includes a planned $40 million Aerospace and Energy Systems Building, said Forbes. The building, which also will be supported by state and private funds, will host "cluster" areas for space systems design, Earth sciences and sensing, space exploration systems, space science and technology and the design and fabrication of unmanned aircraft systems, he said.

"The ball is rolling on this initiative, and we believe it will be a solid incubator for advanced space-science technology," said Forbes. CU-Boulder previously has implemented two campuswide research initiatives -- the Colorado Initiative in Molecular Biotechnology and the Energy Initiative -- and plans to follow AS3E with a Geosciences Initiative in the next several years.

"AS3E will provide an environment where faculty and students can work together and with visitors from government laboratories and industry," said Forbes. Collaborators will include Ball Aerospace Systems Group of Boulder and Denver's Lockheed Martin Corp. The new building will include research and teaching labs, computational labs, instrument development labs, clean rooms and conference rooms and offices.

Forbes said research conducted by members of the new CU-Boulder space sciences initiative fits nicely with NASA's growing emphasis on lunar research. Out of seven national proposals funded by NASA's Lunar Science Institute last month, two from CU-Boulder were selected for a total of $11 million. One involves plans for astrophysical research from the moon, and a second is to study the lunar surface and atmosphere and the effects of such dust on space instruments and astronaut safety.

"For many space scientists, the moon is where the action is right now," said Forbes. "It will be good place for the construction of astrophysics and planetary observatories, and may be an important site from which to monitor the health of Earth."

The university already is recognized as one of the leading space research universities in the world, said CU-Boulder Vice Chancellor for Research Stein Sture. CU-Boulder is the single largest recipient of university research dollars from NASA in the nation according to the space agency, and the campus received nearly $200 million in the past four years for space-related research from NASA and its affiliates, said Sture.

"This new initiative will support even more hands-on research by our students, who will work side by side with researchers and engineers from industry and government," said Sture, also Dean of the Graduate School. "We are anticipating this initiative will bring even more opportunities for the commercialization of technologies and entrepreneurial pursuits."

AS3E participants will be developing new instruments, vehicles and systems, including the development of small, focused environmental systems using unmanned aircraft systems and sensors, Forbes said. Last month CU-Boulder announced a new partnership with SpaceDev Inc. of Louisville, Colo. to create eSpace: The Center for Space Entrepreneurship, dedicated to creating new entrepreneurial space companies, commercializing aerospace technologies and developing the aerospace workforce.

Forbes said the university expects to hire about a dozen new faculty in various space and engineering disciplines as the AS3E initiative moves forward, as well as funding for a number of graduate fellowships and a designated visiting scholars program.

To access a high-resolution image of CU-Boulder aerospace engineering students working on a satellite project known as DANDE that is slated for launch in 2011, go to and type in "dande".