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Space Exploration at Arizona’s Universities

Planetary science departments at Arizona’s universities are pushing the boundaries of space exploration. In addition to building spacecraft and leading missions of international importance, students and faculty at the University of Arizona’s Department Planetary Sciences/Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) are analyzing interplanetary geology, studying atmospheres, constructing advanced imaging devices, and even building the huge mirrors that look deeper and deeper into the universe.

University of Arizona Department Planetary Sciences/Lunar and Planetary Laboratory

The University of Arizona (UA) boasts one of the best university Planetary Science Departments in the world. Since its founding in 1960, the UA Lunar and Planetary Lab (LPL) has been involved in almost every interplanetary spacecraft launched, starting with the first NASA missions that mapped and photographed the moon and continuing with missions to Mars, Venus, and into deep space. This interdisciplinary department creates specialists in physics, engineering, chemistry, astronomy, and more. Some graduates use telescopes, while others create them. Some with work spacecraft, others analyze the images and samples collected by space missions. Still others develop the theories to explain new discoveries. The missions below are only a partial list of how U of A is at the forefront of exploration of the final frontier.

Phoenix Mars Lander

With its mobile laboratory, the Phoenix Mars Lander was able to collect and analyze soil samples and beam back information right to mission control at the UA LPL! Learn more about this seminal mission on the Phoenix Mars Lander page.

OSIRIS-REx: Asteroid Sampling

Learn now the OSIRIS REx mission will chase, photograph, and sample asteroids in a search for information about possible origins of life.

The expected 2016 launch of the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will set course for an entirely new destination: Asteroid 1999 RQ36, potentially the most dangerous asteroid known to humanity. OSIRIS-REx (which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer) study, image, and map the asteroid and its orbit, collect a sample, and return the sample to Earth in September 2023.

An asteroid is a minor planet that is not a comet. These objects have their own orbit, therefore their path can be calculated. Of over 500,000 known asteroids in the solar system, RQ36 is one of only a handful of desirable destinations. For one thing, it is very large, over 200 meters across. For another, it is one of only five known to have a carbonaceous composition. Carbon is the basis for all organic matter, it is theorized that a similar asteroid may have brought organic material and possibly water to ancient Earth! Analyzing samples of an organic-rich space rock like RQ36 may answer questions about the origins and development of life.

Moreover, 1999 RQ36 is one of the asteroids most likely to impact Earth over the next several centuries. Every 66 years, 1999 RQ36’s orbit takes it within 278,897 miles of this planet. Understanding its orbit will help scientists and lawmakers evaluate the threat it poses and determine ways to minimize the danger. Dr. Loretta is already anticipating the return of the asteroid sample, likening that date a decade from now to “Christmas in September.”

HiRISE: Images of Space

Alluvial Fans and Inverted Channels in Kasimov Crater, Mars mark the location of ancient Martian river beds.

The High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) is the most powerful camera ever sent to another planet. Aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, it has captured images of the descent of the Phoenix and Curiosity landers. Its detailed images of Martian terrain continuously offer new information about the topography of the Red Planet, and have helped other missions determine optimal landing locations. UA houses the HiRISE operations center, including observation planning, image processing, and execution of commands sent to the Reconnaissance spacecraft. The project is seeking volunteers to translate images captions into as many languages as possible.

Other Missions

This still image from a Juno mission animation shows how the spinning spacecraft might look during deployment of its giant solar arrays.

All in all, the Lunar and Planetary Lab has a role in almost two dozen missions to deep space or ground based research projects. Among these projects, the JUNO solar-powered probe will study the origins and evolution of Jupiter, and the MESSENGER cameras have just imaged 100% of Mercury.

The LPL has robust programs to study planetary astronomy, atmospheres, exoplanets, lunar studies, and orbital dynamics. One consistent strength asteroid science, including astrobiology and cosmichemistry, the study of crystalline structures of minerals in matter leftover from the formation of the solar system.

They also do important work with two asteroid surveys: Spacewatch and the Catalina Sky Survey, a consortium of 3 cooperating surveys: the original Catalina Sky Survey (CSS), held on Mt. Bigelow in the Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson, Arizona, the Siding Springs Survey (SSS) and the Mt. Lemmon Survey (MLSS).

UA has a renowned Astronomy department as well, with the Seward Observatory running several telescopes at various locations around the state and the headquarters of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory housed on the UA campus.

Arizona State University

ASU’s Earth and Space Science programs offer unique opportunities for integration of several fields and collaboration with top scientists. These programs not only look at space, they look at how advanced imaging, atmospheric, and geologic data can be used to increase opportunities for sustainability here on our own planet.

School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE)

Systems engineering, a variety of aerospace fields. The B.S. in Earth and Space Exploration is the only such program of its kind, emphasizes problem solving through the integration of engineering and science and offers four concentrations: Geological Sciences, Astrophysics, Astrobiology, and Systems Design. The B.A. in Earth and Environmental Studies starts out by teaching the broader concepts of earth systems science (surface of earth, and natural environment – physical processes, chemical processes) so sustainability can be approached from the basis of how the earth works. ASU also offers a B.A.E. in Secondary Earth and Space Education.

Mars Space Flight Facility

Chasma Boreale is a canyon that reaches 570 kilometers (350 miles) into the north polar cap. Canyon walls rise about 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above the floor.

 ASU’s Mars Space Flight Facility is a lead explorer of the the geology, mineralogy, and atmosphere of Mars. Offshoots of the program address key issues in environmental science and sustainability here on Earth and create national opportunities for K-12 space science education.

The facility acts as NASA mission control for two instruments currently in orbit around Mars, the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) and Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS).

THOR (Tracing Habitability, Organics, and Resources) is a developing mission for NASA’s Mars Scout program will build a two-part spacecraft with an impactor that will strike the surface of Mars hard enough to form a crater at least 30 feet deep.

Globular Hematite is one of the minerals the MTES scouted for in the Meridiani region.

THEMIS (Thermal Emission Imaging System) is wavelength visual imaging system with a 9-wavelength infrared imaging system aboard Mars Odyssey spacecraft 5. Its thermal emission spectroscopy, measuring the heat on the Mars surface, enhances knowledge of the geology, atmosphere, and weather on Mars. THEMIS assists in Mars landings by providing data on terrain and atmospheric conditions and has helped target images for the HiRISE camera and land the Phoenix lander.

The facility still uses the 206 million infrared spectra collected from the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES) aboard the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft during it ten year mission from 1996–2006.

The two Mini-Thermal Emission Spectrometers that have sampled the surface on the two Mars Exploration rovers have captured and transmitted data on Martian rocks, helping scientists understand the composition and geologic processes of the Red Planet.


Helped by Chinese-speaking ASU students, parents and kids learn how to make pencil rockets at a rocket workshop.

ASU is the center for the Mars Education program. It is the lead facilitator for NASA-sponsored educator workshops held throughout the U.S., which provide events, field trips, and other space-science learning opportunities for students.

NASA’s Mars Student Imaging Project offers students 5th–12th grade nationwide the chance to use data from the THEMIS camera.

Hundred Cities Project at the (Center for Environmental Science Applications (CESA) is a joint effort between staff members of the ASU's Mars Space Flight Facility and graduate students in ASU's School of Sustainability and School of Earth and Space Exploration. The project collects satellite-based remote sensing data from cities around the world to measure and classify socioeconomic and biogeographic conditions. A collaboration of urban planners, practitioners, and scientists then collaborate to use that information to foster options for sustainable development.

Mars I​mage Analysis

Students become planetary scientists as they analyze images from the THEMIS camera in a sample lesson from the Mars Student Imaging Program.

NASA’s Mars Student Imaging Program

Students grades 5–12 can experience space science hands-on and do actual research using data from the THEMIS camera and the Mars Odyssey spacecraft in this inquiry-based education project. This project is an on-site activity at the Mars Space Flight Facility or through distance learning. There is no fee to participate. Learn how to get involved.