Published: Oct. 12, 2023 By

3…2…1…There goes Ralphie, into space!

Roamin’ Ralphie

Hand holds open a box with electronics inside

Ralphie on the electronics box for the Student Dust Counter, which launched aboard NASA's New Horizons mission in 2006. (Credit: LASP)

CU Boulder's Ralphie logo on the side of a gold scientific instrument

Ralphie on the Europa SUrface Dust Analyzer instrument. (Credit: Glenn Asakawa/LASP)

People in protective suits place a plaque on a space instrument in a clean room

Ralphie on the Interstellar Dust Experiment (IDEX) instrument, which is scheduled to launch on NASA's  Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) in 2025. (Credit: LASP)

CU Boulder’s living American bison mascot is famous for running Folsom Field during home games of the Colorado Buffaloes. But Ralphie has also roamed where no other mascot has gone before—to the edges, even, of Earth’s solar system.

Well, maybe not Ralphie herself. But for more than three decades, engineers at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) have emblazoned the image of Ralphie onto instruments destined for space. She’s ridden on top of the International Space Station, visited the moon and dove beneath the rings of Saturn.

This year, LASP is celebrating its 75th anniversary. To mark 75 years of Colorado's space exploration, CU Boulder Today has captured the numbers behind Ralphie’s adventures across the solar system.

32 years

Ralphie’s first successful voyage to space came in 1991. That year, she entered into orbit around Earth aboard NASA’s Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS). Machinists at LASP engraved an image of CU Boulder’s logo onto an instrument called SOLar STellar Irradiance Comparison Experiment (SOLSTICE). 

From there, the mascot kept a close eye on the sun. SOLSTICE measured ultraviolet radiation coming from the sun as it bathed Earth’s upper atmosphere—part of LASP’s long legacy of studying the relationship between our planet and favorite star.

More than a dozen missions

To date, Ralphie has flown on more than 12 missions in space. The buffalo logo has sat on top of radiators and clamps, inside electronics boxes and was on all five instruments aboard the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE) spacecraft—which launched in 2003 and operated for an impressive 17 years.

Ralphie has even traveled all the way to Saturn as part of NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission. A team at LASP designed and built the mission’s Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVIS). The Cassini spacecraft explored Saturn and its moons from 2004 to 2017 when, in spectacular fashion, it purposefully plummeted into the planet’s atmosphere and exploded.

0.0002 inches

Today, machinists at LASP use an instrument called a CNC mill to make laser engravings on the aluminum parts of space instruments. The machine is accurate to within two 10,000ths of an inch, according to professional research assistant Norm Perish. For reference, that’s many times thinner than a sheet of paper. 

About three to four machinists typically work at LASP. It takes only about 10 minutes to engrave Ralphie into the side of an instrument destined for the vacuum of space.

5 billion-plus miles

Ralphie has also roamed far from our planet—a staggering 5 billion miles, with more to come. From her hideaway in NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, Ralphie waved hello to Pluto in 2015 and is today nearing the edges of Earth’s solar system. 

A team of students at LASP designed and built the mission’s Student Dust Counter, an instrument that collects grains of dust floating through space. The only other spacecraft that have traveled farther are Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, which launched in the late 1970s and also included instruments made by LASP. Today, Voyager 1 is more than 15 billion miles from Earth and Voyager 2 is 12.5 billion miles away.

About 50 flybys

Space Ralphie isn’t done yet. CU Boulder’s buffalo logo sits on four new space instruments that are slated to launch in the next few years. They include the Europa SUrface Dust Analyzer (SUDA), a gold-plated and bucket-shaped dust collector that will ride aboard NASA’s Europa Clipper mission.

Europa Clipper is expected to blast off in October 2024 and will travel to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa—where the spacecraft will circle the moon around 50 times searching for conditions that could support life. SUDA will be a big part of that search, scooping up and analyzing microscopic pieces of ice that have been kicked up from the moon’s surface. 

Not too bad for a humble buffalo from Colorado.