Upcoming Projects, Missions Will Study the Solar System and Beyond

Astro Observatory on South Campus

This photo illustration shows the Schueller Astronomical Observatory’s Celestron 14-inch telescope housed inside a metal dome that’s 16½ feet in diameter.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

As UMass Lowell embarks on a new year – and a new decade – our university community can look forward to astronomy- and space-related projects and missions on the horizon. From exploring the solar system and searching for habitable planets around nearby stars to zapping the Martian surface with a laser, our faculty and student researchers are working to gain a better understanding of the cosmic neighborhood in which we live. Here’s an overview of what’s in store in the months ahead.

A New Window to the Universe Opens on South Campus

Students interested in astronomy, as well as non-science majors and the public, will get a chance to embark on a visual tour of our solar system and beyond when the new Schueller Astronomical Observatory opens on South Campus this spring. The facility features a computer-controlled Celestron 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, which will provide high-resolution views of the craters and lava plains on the moon, the satellites of Jupiter and its cloud belts, and the rings of Saturn, as well as star clusters, galaxies and nebulae light-years away.

Aside from being operated on-site, the telescope is also designed to be remotely controlled by students and faculty from anywhere on campus. Physics majors and students taking introductory astronomy classes will be able to use the telescope to conduct observations, lab exercises and capstone projects, while graduate students can use it to do research in the areas of imaging, spectroscopy, photometry and astrometry.

NASA’s Mars 2020 Mission to Launch This Summer\

Mars 2020 rover Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Mars 2020 rover can be seen exploring the interior of Jezero Crater on Mars in this NASA illustration. The SuperCam instrument is mounted on the rover’s central mast.

Kennedy College of Sciences Dean Noureddine Melikechi is a member of the science team for the SuperCam laser remote-sensing instrument aboard NASA’s next robotic Mars rover mission, which is scheduled to launch this July from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The rover is expected to land on the red planet in February 2021.

Melikechi’s pioneering research has led to advancements in the use of lasers for studying the geochemistry of Mars as well as for diagnosing cancers. SuperCam will analyze the surface composition of Mars by firing intense pulses of laser on distant rocks, boulders or sediments. The resulting flash of light is picked up by the instrument, which identifies the different chemical elements present in the target rock, and the data is transmitted to Earth for analysis. Melikechi has also been involved with analyzing laser data from the ChemCam instrument aboard NASA’s Curiosity rover. The 1-ton robotic rover has been actively exploring the Martian surface since it landed in 2012.

UML’s First Student-built Satellite to Go into Orbit

SPACE HAUC in Earth orbit Image by Dat Le

This conceptual rendering of SPACE HAUC in Earth orbit shows the satellite’s four solar panels fully deployed.

If everything goes as planned, a small satellite designed and built by a team of about 100 undergraduate students from the Kennedy College of Sciences and the Francis College of Engineering will be launched this fall during a scheduled resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Once the satellite is in orbit, it will be released from the ISS and will circle Earth on its own every 90 minutes while traveling at about 17,000 miles per hour.

The project – named SPACE HAUC (pronounced “Space Hawk”), which stands for Science Program Around Communications Engineering with High-Achieving Undergraduate Cadres – is funded with a $200,000 grant from NASA, with Physics Prof. Supriya Chakrabarti of the Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology (LoCSST) as the principal investigator. SPACE HAUC is based on the CubeSat model used worldwide for Low Earth Orbit space research. The mission’s goal is to demonstrate the practicality of communicating at high data rates in the X band using a phased array of patch antennas on the CubeSat and electronic beam steering. The satellite is expected to stay in orbit for a year or more before it gradually loses altitude and falls back to Earth, disintegrating and burning up harmlessly high above the ground.

Balloon-borne Telescope to Soar to the Edge of Space

PICTURE-C NASA balloon Image by NASA
The PICTURE-C payload will be carried to the stratosphere using a large NASA helium balloon. It is scheduled to be launched from Fort Sumner, N.M., this fall.
A planet-searching telescope developed by a team of LoCSST researchers led by Chakrabarti is expected to soar to the edge of the atmosphere this fall aboard an unmanned NASA helium balloon hundreds of feet wide and several stories high. The telescope project (dubbed PICTURE-C, which stands for Planetary Imaging Concept Testbed Using a Recoverable Experiment – Coronagraph) aims to develop and validate the technology necessary for imaging debris disks around nearby stars in the Milky Way. The project is funded with a five-year, $5.6 million grant from NASA. The team’s ultimate goal in the future is to detect Earth-like “exoplanets” around sunlike stars capable of supporting life.

The telescope, which features a primary mirror that’s 24 inches in diameter, along with its electronics and high-precision pointing system, weighs about 6,000 pounds. This mission will be UMass Lowell’s second balloon experiment. During the first one, an engineering test flight launched last September from Fort Sumner, N.M., the helium balloon kept PICTURE-C aloft in the stratosphere for several hours at an altitude of about 125,000 feet. At the end of the mission, ground controllers sent a command to release PICTURE-C from the balloon. A parachute was then deployed to slow PICTURE-C down and allow it to land gently for reuse in this year’s mission.