Arizona had a stellar 2023 in space research. What's on the horizon for 2024?

By Mark Brodie
Published: Tuesday, December 26, 2023 - 10:08am
Updated: Tuesday, December 26, 2023 - 1:37pm

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Back of a rocket
The Falcon Heavy rocket that will launch NASA's Psyche mission in the hangar at Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sept. 27, 2023.

2023 has been a big year in space exploration, and Arizona has been orbiting around much of it. From the OSIRIS-REx mission returning an asteroid sample to earth to the launch of the Psyche mission, the state has very much been in the middle of things.

Mark Marley, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona and head of the Department of Planetary Sciences, sat down with The Show to look back at some of the biggest stories of the year, and a look ahead to what might be in store in 2024.

Full interview

MARK MARLEY: This has been an exceptional year for Arizona in space exploration.

And I have to say the first thing that comes to mind was the return of the OSIRIS-REx sample back in September and seeing the sample container coming down hanging on the parachute was just a spectacular sight. And with a perfect pinpoint landing, and we already have some of the sample from the asteroid Bennu in our building at the University of Arizona. And it's being studied by our scientists, and it was just exceptionally exciting.

Are you finding, and, and are your colleagues finding that what they are finding in that sample is sort of meeting the expectation of the importance that they thought they would get when they first launched?

MARLEY: What I'm hearing is it's even exceeding their expectations. There's lots of interesting things that they're finding and of course, they have to be very careful and make sure they're not making any mistakes, that they're not seeing any kind of contamination.

But the early results will be published early next year. And I'm sure we'll hear a lot about the exciting things that they've found inside the sample.

And that's not to mention that the the spacecraft is now on another mission, right, the OSIRIS-APEX mission out to another asteroid.

MARLEY: That's right. So the spacecraft, the mother ship, after dropping the return capsule off at Earth, fired its engines and is now continuing on into a new mission to visit the asteroid Apophis in 2029. And this is a different type of asteroid. It's a asteroid that's gonna fly very close by the Earth in first half of 2029. And then right after that, the spacecraft is going to catch up with it and study this class of asteroids.

So let me ask you about another mission, this one from ASU which launched later in the year, which is the Psyche mission going to yet another asteroid. But this one is a little different. It's a more metallic object that scientists are hopeful that can provide some clues maybe about the formation of Earth. And this is also, I guess, sort of even beyond Arizona, seen as a pretty significant mission, right?

MARLEY: Oh, absolutely. And one of the big themes in planetary science is trying to understand how the planets formed, and a big missing piece in what we've studied so far has been the cores of planets.

I think we all learned in grade school, the Earth has an iron core, but we don't know a lot about exactly how that formed and the processes that lead to planet formation and the cores of planets. And so Psyche is also in 2029 going to arrive at a metallic iron asteroid. And that should tell us a lot about those planet building processes.

Is it unusual for one state to have this many high profile missions in, in this short of time span?

MARLEY: Oh, I think so. And Arizona really punches above its weight in space science and supporting and flying NASA missions to explore the solar system.

So it's really because of our long legacy of space science in Arizona and both the programs at the University of Arizona and ASU have grown to be real powerhouses in this kind of science.

So we mentioned OSIRIS-REx, OSIRIS-APEX, the Psyche mission. Are there others that are maybe still significant scientifically, but maybe haven't generated as much attention outside of maybe the labs in which they're being worked on that that came to the fore this year across the state?

MARLEY: Well, one other thing that has gotten a lot of attention is the James Webb Space telescope. And the University of Arizona scientists played a big role in two of the different scientific instruments on the on the telescope. And they've been taking spectacular pictures of the universe and star forming regions where where stars and planets are being formed and even the planets of our own solar system. So we can't forget this year, it has just been a better year for James Webb Space telescope.

And there's a host of smaller spacecraft that the universities are involved with. For example, there's still the high rise camera orbiting Mars. It takes spectacular close up images of the surface of Mars. And this is something we don't hear a lot about. But every day it's producing more, covering more of the surface of Mars and high resolution and challenges our ideas about the past climate and history of the planet.

Well, so given all that has happened from Arizona in the world of space exploration in 2023, is it fair to assume that this is sort of pardon the pun a launching pad for the future in Arizona or do you think maybe this is sort of the high water mark?

MARLEY: Well, the great thing is that the success of these missions trains a whole new generation of scientists and engineers and people who understand how to, to plan and propose missions to NASA.

And so our faculty ... and planetary lab are already thinking about the missions for the 2030s and even into the 2040s. And of course, we have to put together plans and propose them to NASA to be selected for those future missions.

But absolutely, it gives us such strength to build from, to continue the legacy of space exploration from Arizona.

And what are you seeing in terms of economic impact? I mean, these, these missions obviously come with an awful lot of money and a lot of scientists working on them. What kind of economic impact are we seeing all of this have on the state's economy?

MARLEY: You know, that's a great question. And when we see, you know, a headline about the scientific results of of a mission, we forget that there's also a host of accountants and attorneys and staff people that we can make that happen. And then there's also the local aerospace industry that provides the lenses and the spacecraft electronics that we can work with to build and develop these instruments. So there's an entire space exploration economy.

Right here in Arizona, the university did an economic impact study and found that annually just in southern Arizona and just from the University of Arizona, the economic impact is about $550 million a year, which is a good fraction of say, a Super Bowl, hosting the Super Bowl. And I'm sure that if you fold in what's happening in Arizona State and in Flagstaff, that the economic impact is clearly over $1 billion a year in Arizona just from space exploration.

Wow. Are you finding that all of the, the headlines and all of the missions and everything coming out of Arizona universities is also making other people, maybe non-scientists, more interested in this field? And I ask because for example, we saw that the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Center is, is going to be getting to work pretty soon to open up. Kit Peak is sort of back up and running now, obviously Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Is there a relationship between the missions and the work coming out of Arizona universities and Arizona researchers and the rest of the state sort of having an interest in this area?

MARLEY: Oh, absolutely. I think so. And we hear, we hear that from the contacts we have with the general public and how interested they are, and when they see the things that are happening in Arizona, they get excited and want to go to a dark sky site, things coming into Fountain Hills, and use the telescopes and see some of these things for themselves.

And so seeing these things excites younger people and even if they don't go off to become an astronomer, but they might become an engineer or take part in some other ways.

And I just think it's fantastic that that's happening and that the people of Arizona can see what's happening right here in their own state.

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