Since its founding in 1963, UCF has had close ties to the space industry. In the early 1990s, UCF professors would go to Kennedy Space Center to teach graduate programs to NASA employees. When NASA’s budgets were cut, UCF proposed to NASA to research nondestructive testing methods so the agency wouldn’t have to destroy rocket engines and shuttle tiles, saving money. By the 1980s, it was estimated that UCF graduates comprised at least 30% of the workforce of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and its partners, according to Ray Lugo ’79, an aerospace engineering alum and Center for the Advancement of Science in Space chief operating officer.
As the university grew in enrollment over the decades, so did the programs around the campus, as well as the campus itself. Space research was part of the expansion. While UCF had done research and served as a talent pipeline for the space industry, the administration wanted to extend its reach even further. In August 2002, Humberto Campins, Pegasus Professor in the Department of Physics, joined the university as provost research professor of physics and astronomy and head of the Planetary and Space Science Group. Campins joined the university with an extensive research background in asteroids, comets and small planetary bodies. While at the University of Arizona from 1998 to 2002, he was part of a team that submitted a proposal that became the OSIRIS REx mission, the first U.S. mission to collect a sample from an asteroid.
Campins would be tasked with developing the planetary sciences program, though it took a few times to get him to join UCF. As Florida Space Grant Consortium director from 1994 to 1998, Campins got to know former professor and department chair Brian Tonner. Tonner pitched the opportunity to Campins, but he had started his job as the program officer at the Research Corporation and as research faculty at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona in Tucson. However, Campins would get a final offer that would lead to him considering moving to Orlando.
“I liked my job in Tucson, and I turned them down, and then that turned into another invitation and another,” Campins says. “I had another invitation to attend a workshop on physics pedagogy. I attended a workshop that turned into a third offer that was good enough that I said, ‘You know what? I might want to take a chance.’”
Campins’ first two hires brought extensive planetary science research behind them. In 2003, Dan Britt joined UCF as a professor of astronomy and planetary sciences, having worked on the Mars Pathfinder mission and done large-scale asteroid research. In 2005, Yan Fernandez was hired as an assistant professor in physics, having studied comets and asteroids for 11 years prior.
The following year, two hires would expand the physics department and UCF’s space research goals as Joshua Colwell and Joe Harrington were hired as assistant professors. Colwell came to the university having worked on the NASA Cassini mission since some of its earliest planning stages in 1990 and was part of the design and observation planning for the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph, or UVIS, on the multi-instrument spacecraft. In 2019, Colwell and Richard Jerousek ’06 ’09MS ’18PhD, a former student of Colwell and current physics department lecturer, used UVIS data recorded by Cassini to measure and describe the structure of Saturn’s largest innermost ring, the C Ring.
Harrington led the Spitzer Exoplanet Target of Opportunity Program, which measured exoplanet eclipses and transits with the Spitzer Space Telescope. He was also part of the development of the Bayesian Atmospheric Radiative Transfer, an open-source, reproducible research code for inferring the properties of exoplanet atmospheres, for which he won the 2011 College of Sciences Excellence in Research Award.
Britt, Colwell and Harrington are now Pegasus Professors, with Colwell as physics department chair and Harrington associate vice president for research.
Raising the Profile
As with many start-ups, there were early challenges in developing the planetary sciences program. However, with help from the administration, such as Tonner, M.J. Soileau, CREOL’s founding director, and Michael Johnson, then-dean of the College of Sciences and current provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs, the program was able to grow over time. The research also helped increase the university’s profile, which helped administrative support.
The 2010s saw UCF’s space research evolve through their partnerships with various institutions. In 2012, the Florida Space Institute (FSI) was re-chartered to allow for an extensive research portfolio. That same year, FSI was also relocated from near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to the Central Florida Research Park in Orlando, closer to UCF and its research efforts. FSI also managed the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the largest fully operational radio telescope on the planet, leading to enhanced planetary research and discoveries such as a moon orbiting a near-Earth asteroid. Recently, Noemi Pinilla-Alonso an associate scientist at FSI, was part of a team studying the size and composition of Dinkinesh, an asteroid NASA’s Lucy mission visited this month. Britt is part of the science team for the mission.
A year after FSI was re-chartered, UCF’s Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science (CLASS) launched via a $6 million NASA grant in 2013. CLASS facilitated one of UCF’s key space contributions: The Exolith Lab. The lab develops and produces Martian, lunar and asteroid regolith simulants and works with NASA in addition to conducting its own research, led by Britt, Zoe Landsman ’11 ’17PhD and Anna Metke.
UCF’s Martian formula is based on the chemical signature of the soils on Mars collected by the Curiosity rover, allowing researchers to have a more accurate simulant for the many research uses, such as plant growth, vehicle testing, processing and more.
“It’s really important to have a good handle of the mineralogy of the stuff you’re going to be working with because that really dictates the chemistry and the physical properties of the surface you’re going to be working on,” Britt says.
Research Now and Beyond
Recent studies are pushing UCF’s understanding of space even further. In 2020, Kareem Ahmed, an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and his team developed a new rocket propulsion system, leading more power to be generated from the rocket, traveling further while using less fuel and burning cleaner. In 2021, aerospace engineering Associate Professor Tarek Elgohary, along with his research students, used analytical and computational methods and machine learning to ensure spacecraft don’t collide with each other or space junk. The research is supported by the Federal Aviation Administration and Lockheed Martin Space.
Last year, Associate Professor Ranajay Ghosh and his team discovered a way to turn lunar regolith into 3D-printed bricks that could be used during space colonization. Using lunar regolith from the Exolith Lab, the bricks were made by 3D printing and binder jet technology (BJT), an additive manufacturing method that forces out a liquid binding agent (in this case, saltwater) onto a bed of powder.
Future space research will see Professors Kerri Donaldson Hanna and Adrienne Dove lead a robotics mission studying the moon’s Gruithuisen Domes, a previously unexplored area. Launching in 2026, the researchers will examine the domes’ makeup and how dust interacts with the spacecraft and a rover. The $35 million mission will help inform future robotic and human exploration of the moon and may also help researchers better understand Earth’s history and other planets in the solar system.
For Donaldson Hanna, the range of planetary science research within the physics department drew her to UCF. She saw intriguing ways she could collaborate with people on various research possibilities.
“Just seeing how committed to space science and space exploration the university itself is, it’s certainly nice and fun to be in an environment where what you’re doing is celebrated and is exciting,” Donaldson Hanna says.
While UCF has worked with the space industry since its inception, the work done in the early 2000s helped take the university’s space research closer to the stars. From bringing in new faculty to help shape emerging departments to administrative decisions that would provide an immersive environment for space research, this period began a new era that saw Knight researchers Charge On to further understand our universe.