NASA’s move to develop new destinations in space announced Dec. 2 is an exciting moment in history and UCF is right in the middle of it.

UCF is a member of the academic coalition that is supporting Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef project to build a commercially owned and operated space station to reside in low-Earth orbit. It is expected to start operating in the second half of this decade.

Orbital Reef’s team include Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering, with Arizona State University leading a coalition of universities, including UCF. Orbital Reef’s human-centered space architecture is designed to be a “mixed-use space business park” that provides essential infrastructure needed to support all types of human spaceflight activity in low-Earth orbit and can be scaled to serve new markets.

But advising is just the latest contributions UCF is making toward the future of space exploration. For more than a decade UCF has been home to the Center for Microgravity Research and Education, which has been conducting research into microgravity environments and how planets form. UCF’s experiments have flown aboard multiple commercial spacecraft including several Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights.

UCF has flown experiments on the International Space Station. In addition to studying scientific questions such as the origins of planets, UCF’s experiments explore the behavior of dust particles on and near the surfaces of the moon and asteroids. These tiny particles can create big problems for astronauts and their equipment, and UCF experiments are helping us learn how to minimize those risks.

“What we are learning is helping us unravel the mystery of planet formation,” says Physics Professor Joshua Colwell who leads the center. “It can also help us figure out ways to keep our astronauts safe while they explore. The knowledge will be critical for successful interactions with destinations in space, whether they be on an asteroid, a planet or a new space port.”

UCF is also home to the Florida Space Institute (FSI), which has several researchers working on payloads with commercial space companies. The Florida Space Grant, managed by FSI and UCF also funds Edu-Payloads — payloads built primarily by students with faculty mentorship.

“This is an exciting time and UCF is well positioned,” says Elizabeth Klonoff, vice president of Research for UCF. “The center has already put payloads on other major destinations such as the ISS and on suborbital flights. These new platforms coming online in the next decade provide even more opportunities for synergies in research with our partners that will make a real impact on our future as a species.”

The UCF Board of Trustees just last month approved renaming the center in honor of Stephen W. Hawking, who early on recognized the importance of microgravity research. Space Florida, which arranged for Hawking to fly aboard a zero-gravity flight and connected him to UCF, will take a final vote on the naming of the center later this month.