Published: May 22, 2014

On May 22, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Director Charles Elachi and his senior management team met with University of Colorado Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano and several other campus administrators to sign a memorandum of understanding to continue and broaden a rich tradition of collaboration on space and Earth-science efforts going back nearly 50 years. Located in Pasadena, Calif., JPL is a federally funded research and development facility managed by the California Institute of Technology for NASA.

CU-Boulder began its collaboration with JPL in the 1960s, and has been involved in roughly 40 sponsored research projects with JPL worth nearly $15 million between 2011 and 2013. The latest efforts include solar system exploration, star and galaxy formation, advanced telescope optics, science outreach and climate change, including sea-level rise, shrinking glaciers and anthropogenic changes in atmospheric gases.

The joint MOU is a product of the Strategic University Research Partnership, or SURP, which was established to encourage and support relationships between JPL and the nation’s top space education and research universities. Such JPL partnerships support collaborations and program development with universities that have strong educational and research programs in space and earth sciences and engineering fields that support national goals in space science and exploration.

“This has been such a fruitful and productive partnership, on so many levels, for so long, I am pleased to formalize this MOU,” said DiStefano. “This relationship has made CU-Boulder a national leader in space exploration over the last 45 years.” 

Roughly 165 CU-Boulder graduates have gone on to work at JPL. That includes students -- primarily undergraduates -- who have designed, built and flown instruments on NASA space shuttles and sounding rockets, as well as undergraduates who have controlled NASA satellites from campus.

CU-Boulder has been intimately tied to solar system exploration missions operated by JPL dating back to 1969, when Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics scientists designed and built ultraviolet spectrometers for the Mariner 6 and 7 missions to Mars. LASP also provided photopolarimeters for the twin Voyager spacecraft that toured the outer planets under the control of JPL -- spacecraft still flying at thousands of miles per hour and now literally knocking on the door at the edge of our solar system.

More recent JPL planetary missions involving CU-Boulder include the Galileo Mission to Jupiter carrying two instruments designed and built by LASP that launched in 1989 and arrived at Jupiter in 1995 to gather data on the gas giant planet system for seven years. In addition, the JPL-led Cassini Mission to Saturn arrived at the fabulous planet-moon-ring system in 2004 carrying 12 instruments, including a $12 million instrument package built by LASP. Because of the wealth of data the spacecraft has provided, NASA has funded the mission for extended observations that continue today.

CU-Boulder students played a huge role in the Solar Mesosphere Explorer Satellite mission managed by JPL to study the processes that create and destroy ozone. Launched in 1982 and dubbed “The Classroom in Space,” SME was built by Ball Aerospace and was the first NASA satellite ever operated by students. More than 100 students uploaded commands to the spacecraft during SME’s seven and one-half year lifetime.

“One of the most powerful aspects of our memorandum of understanding with JPL is the continued student participation in space research,” said CU-Boulder Vice Chancellor Stein Sture. “Undergraduate and graduate students already are involved in virtually all areas of research at CU-Boulder, and this agreement will provide new opportunities for them to gain even more knowledge and experience in space exploration and Earth system science.”

Sture and JPL Chief Scientist Daniel McCleese also signed the MOU. 

“The MOU between CU-Boulder and JPL is open-ended because JPL is developing a long-term strategic partnership with CU-Boulder,” said JPL Strategic University Partnership Program Manager Neil Murphy. “Strong collaborative relationships with the academic community provide accelerated innovation for NASA’s missions as well as the discovery of new science and technology opportunities for the future.”

JPL currently has memorandums of understanding with a dozen other universities conducting high-quality space sciences research, including Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Cornell and UCLA.