Sustainability and safety in space: A Q&A with Space4's Walt Harris and Chris Shinohara

Faculty, staff and students involved in Space4 gather in the Meinel Optical Sciences building following a February retreat. (Photo by John de Dios.)

Faculty, staff and students involved in Space4 gather in the Meinel Optical Sciences building following a February retreat. (Photo by John de Dios.)

Walt Harris, deputy director for engagement, Space4

Walt Harris, deputy director for engagement, Space4

Chris Shinohara, program development manager, Space4

Chris Shinohara, program development manager, Space4

The University of Arizona Space4 Center is helping researchers from different disciplines understand how their expertise can contribute – perhaps in unexpected ways – to solutions related to national security and sustainability in space.

By engaging with a variety of departments and helping researchers seek funding, Space4 hopes to expand the University's portfolio in space safety and sustainability expertise and develop out-of-this-world successes in a rapidly changing field.

In this Q&A, Space4's Walt Harris, deputy director for engagement, and Chris Shinohara, program development manager, talk about the center's engagement program and what they want faculty to know about Space4. 

A new wave of lunar exploration has started, with more than 100 missions planned in the next decade. That sets the scene for space congestion and space debris that can be hazardous to spacecraft and astronauts. Against this backdrop, Space4 is developing research and education solutions to ensure that use of orbital space between the Earth and moon remains safe, secure and sustainable. How does engagement fit within Space4's mission?

Harris: The University has been building a pipeline and resources, including the Arizona Space Institute, Space4 and UA-ARC (University of Arizona Applied Research Corp.), that are involved in space-related research. The Space4 emphasis is on the non-classified part of the University's participation in the Department of Defense enterprise to monitor and maintain a sustainable presence in the region from low Earth orbit to the moon. Space 4 is an outgrowth of a space situational awareness cluster hire with the goal of developing a sustainable, high-quality research program in this expanding field. 

We are looking at ways we can partner with faculty across campus to develop high quality research and to help those faculty, once they become interested in doing this, develop the portfolio and relationships they need to be successful in the proposal space that is the DoD. The DoD process is very different from the NSF (National Science Foundation), NASA and NIH (National Institutes of Health) opportunities our faculty are familiar with, and it is a major goal of Space4 to help those with good ideas navigate it successfully.  

Shinohara: Not many faculty understand how their research applies to DoD, but it does. We help them understand how their research applies to national security and pair them with the right opportunities. By tapping into expertise across college boundaries, we hope to build larger-scale opportunities for the University. 

What are some examples of research with not-so-obvious space applications?

Shinohara: Certain applications designed for use on Earth often can be relevant for space as well. Hardware that scans the Earth's surface could be used to scan for lunar craters. The magnetic properties of dust are relevant to how lunar dust might stick to optics. Electronics are another example. You need the same electronics down here as in space; you just need to put them through a different qualifications program for space. That's why we are bringing in faculty who want to be involved in DoD space-related research, not only from planetary science, but also earth science, optical science, remote sensing, a variety of engineering fields and the BIO5 Institute. 

You mentioned DoD funding is different from that of other agencies. How so?

Shinohara: For small proposals, DoD usually wants a one-page quad chart with a quick schedule, high-level budget, overall objectives, and why it's important. They are succinct – they want results and want to know how to get them quickly. We help researchers navigate the DoD funding landscape. Also, developing a long-standing relationship with the program managers is important to making them aware of the research expertise at the University. 

Describe the types of funding that Space4 awards.

Shinohara: We have the Firefly Travel grants, the Concept Development White-Paper grants and Proposal Development grants, and all three carry over two fiscal years so recipients don't lose their money come June 30.

The travel grants help cover the cost of faculty, staff or students attending meetings to present research or build relationships. Applicants only need to send us a paragraph explaining their rationale for attending the event and how it pertains to the Space4 mission. The event should be leading in the direction of a white paper or proposal opportunity.

The idea behind the Concept Development grants is to support faculty engagement with DoD. I work with faculty to present their proposals to the review committee. If approved, the researcher is awarded $10,000 to develop a white paper that they can submit to DoD officials for funding in relevant research areas. We at Space4 also help shop the paper around to find external funding, too. It helps build the bench for larger proposals.

With the Proposal Development grants, we help take your idea to a finished product and submit it to the funding agency.

The response so far has been good. We have received proposals and know some are in the works. The process for engaging is easy – it's a simple email to me. I'll meet with anyone, anytime, and then we get Walt involved for the science ideas and work to get the researcher in the door at DoD.

How do you engage students in the Space4 mission?

Harris: Space4 has committed to a five-year program to involve students in experiential learning. The center already supports 13 undergraduate and graduate students and two postdocs, using an apprenticeship approach as its model for student hands-on learning. We have students majoring in physics, astronomy, different areas of engineering, and even pre-business, and they're building the telescopes, observing, and building algorithms to find, identify and track objects in space.

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