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UD, DSU collaborate on space research, STEM pipeline

Katie Tabeling
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Delaware State University Director of Observatory and Science Outreach Matthew Bobrowsky, left, and University of Delaware Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Bennett Maruca are working to develop a new initiative that will ground all of Delaware’s space research in facilities at both universities. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

This June, University of Delaware Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Bennett Maruca will be able to look toward the NASA Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia and see a suborbital rocket streak across the sky like a meteor. 

He’ll be able to point at it and say, “UD students have a project on a rocket.” 

The project is designed to measure the Earth’s ionosphere with probes, working out the density and temperature at different altitudes. NASA flies scores of college student projects on select rocket launches intermittently. Four years ago, the UD engineering students sent up a new type of circuit chip and a navigation system to track the rocket’s acceleration and rotation.

NASA launches the RockSat-X education payload on a suborbital sounding rocket in August 2017 from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The new UD-DSU collaborative will send similar experiments into the atmosphere. | PHOTO COURTESY OF NASA

But Maruca and his colleagues want to accelerate space research and hardware design in the First State. He and Delaware State University’s astronomer Matthew Bobrowsky are launching the Delaware Space Observation Center (DSpOC), a new initiative that would establish a laboratory and ground all the space research in Delaware at the two universities.

Both UD and DSU are in the process of securing $900,000 in federal appropriations to build a lab so not only these institutions, but other researchers can rally and continue their work, including building new hardware for future space missions. For example, neither university has a thermal vacuum chamber, a device that simulates space conditions to test electronic devices before sending them off on a rocket.

“That work those students [who worked on the project] did is something we’d really like to see more of, but lab space is so limited,” Maruca said. “There’s a lot of good research and education being done here, but it’s not well organized. There’s a lot of resources that would be a huge asset, so it would be hard for one group to pull it off alone.”

DSpOC is primarily a collaboration between UD and DSU, but some outreach has started with neighboring school districts to get students interested in the STEM fields. Throughout the years, the profile of astronomy and physics has been quietly rising in the Delaware region. The Mt. Cuba Astronomy Observatory is building a 1.3-meter telescope, and the facility has run extensive research programs on asteroids and studying flare stars. 

Last year, NASA announced a partnership with UD and Salisbury University to improve regional weather forecasting. For years, the Delaware Space Grant Consortium provided scholarships and fellowships to students to continue studies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — all skills NASA will need in its future workforce.

“Scientific work is very collaborative between institutions, and internationally as well. Scientists build on each other’s work, and in this way, we’ll be able to really progress and be able to learn things that we never knew before,” Bobrowsky said.

If the funding is approved, the lab would also house the Delaware CubeSat ground station, another collaboration effort between UD and the University of California, Berkeley. The mission includes two satellites that will do radio interferometry – taking data from antennas – to pinpoint and track radio emissions from large solar eruptions that can garble communication satellites. The mission is slated to launch in the upcoming months, and Maruca and his team will be able to aid with spacecraft communications from Delaware.

DSU already has a 14-inch telescope that can see as far as Jupiter and its moon and Saturn and its rings. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN

DSpOC will also be divided into research and public outreach components. In addition to developing hardware, the lab may also include a high-performance computer system to analyze data sets captured by the telescope currently being built at Mt. Cuba. DSU, which already has a 14-inch telescope through which visitors can frequently see Jupiter and its moons and Saturn and its rings, will have remote access to a telescope in Southern California to add onto the university’s existing programs.

“It’s an awesome sight, in the original meaning of the word: awe-invoking. It’s an amazing thing, and some of my students have never seen that. So, when they do experience it, it’s something they’ll always remember,” Bobrowsky said. “This may be one of the first remotely-operated telescopes operated by an HBCU, which will really open up opportunities for students who don’t normally have access to this technology and think bigger.”

DSU will also install a 1-to-10-billion scale model of the solar system, where the sun would be the size of a large grapefruit. One of these models was installed on the National Mall 11 years ago, so Bobrowsky believes the exhibit alone would be a draw to Delaware, for visitors and young students alike.

“It’s an experiential learning opportunity that draws a lot of STEM connections, making DSU a destination for pre-college student groups and families. I can see the university leveraging the exhibit for visits by outside groups or other events like stargazing or professional development for educators,” he said.

Looking at the stars, it may be difficult to imagine key space research happening in Delaware. But the First State is less than 100 miles from NASA’s Wallops Island and the Goddard Space flight centers. Companies like Northrop Grumman, which builds hypersonic aircrafts, have three locations in Maryland, all within a three-hour drive from Delaware. 

Students educated here in the First State are working on launching rockets to carry $10 billion telescope into space – and others take their science education and use it in different ways, like creating computer-generated maps of coral communities off the Florida Keys. 

In collaboration with NASA, Delaware has a Space Grant Program that awards research grants and fellowships to professionals looking to sharpen their skills or secure seed funding for projects.

“Space does have an excitement factor, but we’re thinking this could be a gateway to STEM pathways,” Maruca said. “There’s a large diversity of paths you can take when you get into physics. The myth is that you can’t get a job if you get a physics degree, but it’s the opposite – there’s no pigeonhole for you.”

“The big challenge is getting more students involved in STEM fields, because in the coming decades, that’s where the job growth will be,” Bobrowsky added. “There’s a greater need for diversity in this field, and we’re hoping to play a significant part in it moving forward.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that DSU’s telescope may be the first operated by the HBCU. It may be the first remote-operated telescope operated by an HBCU. We regret the error.

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