Published: Sept. 14, 2015

The University of Colorado Boulder today announced Our Space, Our Future, a universitywide Grand Challenge to build on the university’s strengths in aerospace-enabled science and technology to address some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Through Our Space. Our Future., the university will make strategic investments over a number of years to transform the landscape of space exploration and find pathways to address significant issues our planet faces, such as a changing environment, increasing populations and limited resources.

“For 50 years, CU-Boulder has been a leader in the Earth and space sciences,” said Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano. “With this Grand Challenge we will expand the university’s existing expertise in Earth, space and social sciences. Grand Challenge researchers will develop solutions in collaboration with government and industry partners to effectively and rapidly address the pace and pattern of changes in the resources and environment of our planet.”

DiStefano added that the Grand Challenge is not something CU-Boulder can accomplish on its own. “I’m inviting local, regional and state communities and industry partners to join us in this important endeavor.”

Through Our Space. Our Future., CU-Boulder will work with government and industry partners to create:

  • An integrated scientific and engineering alliance throughout the Front Range, which will lead the nation in the exploration of space.
  • An environment in which academia, industry and government work together to solve problems of national and international importance.
  • Increased federal and commercial partnerships engaged in CU-Boulder Earth and space exploration efforts.
  • New pathways for educating and training students to meet the national needs in emerging Earth and space exploration businesses.

To launch the challenge, CU-Boulder will invest $4 million this year into two core research initiatives, Earth Lab and the Integrated Remote and In Situ Sensing Initiative (IRISS), plus more than a dozen other projects that focus on space and Earth exploration in education and training, philosophy, art and media.

Earth Lab will harness big data observations of Earth from space and integrate them to answer outstanding questions about the pace and pattern of environmental change. 

“For our initial projects, we’re tackling issues close to home, including how can we better adapt to fires, floods and droughts—sources of key vulnerabilities to Colorado’s environment and livelihood,” said Jennifer Balch, an assistant professor of geography and principal investigator for Earth Lab.

At the core of Earth Lab is the development of an analytics hub, which will be a state-of-the-art computing facility leveraging existing cyber infrastructure investments with analytics specialists who will assist researchers and students along the discovery pathway—from data integration and management to analysis and visualization.

The multi-disciplinary IRISS team, led by principal investigator Brian Argrow, a professor of aerospace engineering sciences, will use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to enhance data collection from the ground, in the atmosphere and from space.

One application is already improving drought prediction in Colorado by coupling large-scale satellite observations with high-precision measurements of soil moisture content collected from low-flying unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The team will also use UAS to collect on-site atmospheric data before tornado supercells form and during tornado formation. “The long-term goal is to contribute to the national effort to significantly increase tornado warning time and accuracy,” Argrow said.

A month of space and Earth science-related activities on campus kicks off Our Space. Our Future. Starting in mid-September, Boulder campus departments and cultural institutions will host over 20 events and exhibits including talks by space sciences professionals, space films hosted by the International Film Series, art installations, displays of student space-related research pods and a scavenger hunt on campus for a Mars rover model named Destiny.

The first event of the month is a talk by Frank Buzzard, a retired space shuttle and International Space Station chief engineer, titled “How space exploration has benefitted you.” His talk is from 3 to 4 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 14, in the UMC Gallery. On Friday, Sept. 18, a talk by Bill Nye the Science Guy will be simulcast live from Denver from 1 to 1:45 p.m. at Fiske Planetarium.

Details on the Grand Challenge initiatives and all of the planned events can be found on the Grand Challenges website.