LogoThe Boulder-based Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Science (LASP) has become an international powerhouse for space science research and instrument design. A research institute at CU-Boulder, LASP conducts world-renowned atmospheric, planetary, and solar research in a climate of student involvement.

Emerging from the Upper Air Laboratory in the 1940’s, LASP’s research focus has expanded greatly over the past five decades. Originally, LASP was rooted in the use of sounding rockets to study the upper atmosphere and sun, specifically in the ultraviolent wavelengths. Eventually, leaders like Charles Barth infused LASP with a strong interplanetary focus. Dr. Daniel Baker, LASP Director, discusses his role in this research continuum:


Dan Baker, LASP Director

“I came here in the 90’s with an explicit goal of trying to broaden our kind of research involvement. I’ve encouraged us to broaden our imaging capabilities and expand our study of energetic particles, plasmas, and cosmic dust. Over time, we’ve become a truly wide spectrum lab with abilities to make measurements in all kinds of environments at all wavelengths.”

By all accounts, the depth and breadth of research conducted through LASP is truly phenomenal. With the successful fly-by of Pluto by New Horizons, LASP is the only university research institution in the world to have sent instruments to all eight planets and Pluto. It collaborates frequently with national entities like NASA, NSF and JPL on all aspects of mission execution, from instrument design to mission operations and data analysis.

At any given time, LASP can be juggling the development and operation of over a dozen instruments and space science flight programs. Baker explains the mindset that allows such multi-tasking to flourish:

“The people who come to LASP realize that we are all in it together and working towards a common purpose. I think they feel a broad sense of commitment and achievement. This cooperativeness allows us to share resources and be more conciliatory as far as when things get done.”

Throughout its myriad of research pursuits, LASP retains a priority on promoting student involvement. Baker notes:

“We provide a profound educational experience for students. Students work side-by-side with mission operators [for programs like Kepler and MAVEN] and professional engineers on projects spanning CubeSats to major satellite instrumentation. Gradually, students become experts in all aspects of their spacecraft. They can then go out as seasoned veterans into the spacecraft industry.”

One student payload of particular recent relevance is the Student Dust Collector (SDC).  Designed, built and tested by CU students, SDC is the only one of New Horizon’s seven instruments to operate continuously since the spacecraft’s 2006 launch. SDC is providing insight into the origins of our solar system, as their website explains:

Team Pic

SDC team comprised of CU students.

“As it travels to Pluto and beyond, SDC will provide information on the dust that strikes the spacecraft during its fourteen-year journey across the solar system. These observations will advance our understanding of the origin and evolution of our own solar system, as well as help scientists study planet formation in dust disks around other stars.”

Beyond formal research and employment settings, LASP researchers engage students in the classroom. Over 20 LASP researchers, including Baker, serve on the CU tenure-track faculty, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in topics spanning geology to astronomy. To Baker, teaching offers an invaluable opportunity to “impart a lot of good knowledge” to the next generation, while providing a talent pipeline for the LASP research community.

In an industry dominated by regulations, it is frequently difficult for aerospace companies to foster international collaborations. LASP has become a dominant figure in the global aerospace arena, nurturing relationships with space agencies and research institutions around the world. Recently, LASP has partnered with the United Arab Emirates Space Agency to execute the Emirates Mars Mission. Baker notes:

“Space has been and will continue to be a theme that really attracts and engages young people and nations around the world. Many nations view success in space as a demonstration that they’ve made it and to show that they have a place at the ‘international table.’ They view CU-Boulder as a means of becoming valued members of the space community, while being treated as partners.”


MAVEN spacecraft operated by LASP.

Throughout its various international collaborations, LASP has become adept at navigating the complexities of ITAR and similar regulations. Even so, LASP researchers are seeking to reform the most “onerous” of these rules by creating policy pieces, writing op-eds and testifying to Congress.

Despite cultivating extensive relationships with national and international entities, LASP greatly values its place in the Boulder aerospace community:

“Boulder is a unique place in the world when it comes to space-related activities. The presence of strong research institutions like NCAR and NOAA, the presence of a vibrant private industry, and the university all make this a unique place. When I was first asked to consider the LASP Director position, I responded that I was happy where I was. However, when I thought about the opportunities here – to not only have strong support from the university but from the whole [Boulder] community – I was drawn in.”

-Written By: Ari Sandberg, Intern