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Exploring Space with NASA and Arizona State University

ASU has been researching space exploration since 1969. Here, we chat with the experts on what’s next for the final frontier.


he race to space is on—at least for private citizens, that is. And one institution helping that mission is right in our own backyard: Arizona State University.

While many of the missions are centered around instrumentation, not people, they still have a connection to human exploration.

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“All these places—you need a map to get there,” says Jim Bell, the director of the NewSpace Initiative at ASU. You need to know about temperatures, soil, gravity, the atmosphere and what to expect, so you can engineer systems to help people survive in the environment. ASU does expeditions with robotics to find these things out. “Sending rovers to Mars, orbiters to Saturn, and landers to other places—it’s reconnaissance.”

The NewSpace Initiative at ASU creates academic-commercial partnerships with private-sector space technology companies. The university has also long done research in conjunction with NASA, too.

ASU’s first NASA mission to be fully designed, built, and operated out of ASU.

Planetary scientist and assistant professor, Craig Hardgrove, is the principal investigator on ASU’s first NASA mission to be fully designed, built, and operated out of ASU. The mission will send the LunaH-Map (Lunar Polar Hydrogen Mapper) spacecraft to orbit the moon to search for small-scale enrichments of water and ice that might be concentrated at the poles within permanently shadowed craters. In order to make these measurements, LunaH-Map needs to orbit low over the surface of the moon, something that’s too risky for a full-size spacecraft. To solve that problem the LunaH-Map spacecraft is designed as a CubeSat, a tiny spacecraft with instrumentation roughly the size of two family-sized boxes of cereal. LunaH-Map will be one of 13 independent CubeSat missions sent into space from NASA’s Space Launch System in 2019.

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The LunaH-Map will build on previous missions, Lunar Prospector and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which both carried neutron detectors to sense water and ice but orbited from higher altitudes.

The data about water-ice enrichments collected by LunaH-Map can be correlated with the earlier, lower-resolution maps from Lunar Prospector and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, to plan future missions to the moon’s south pole.

“Data from LunaH-Map may help with selecting landing sites at the lunar south pole. Do we want to land at the north or the south side of the crater? Which regions have the most ice enrichments?” Hardgrove says. “Full success is that we have a map that can be used to plan future missions to the south pole.”

“Although this is really about fundamental science, I actually think that the real reason that we explore space is to encourage everybody to be bolder in their own lives,” Elkins-Tanton says.

Another NASA space mission led by ASU will go to an asteroid called Psyche, located between Mars and Jupiter, in 2022. It’s led by Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the second woman in the world to run a deep-space mission. Once there, the mission will map and study Psyche’s metal core. Seeing the core of planets like ours will give us a better understanding of Earth’s core, which is too deep and far away to ever get to.

“Although this is really about fundamental science, I actually think that the real reason that we explore space is to encourage everybody to be bolder in their own lives,” Elkins-Tanton says. “If we can do this incredible feat of building a spacecraft that flies off of our planet and through the solar system and sends back data, then surely we can solve our every day problems.”


There are many ways to indulge your space curiosities, for both adults and the kiddos. Here are some of our favorites.


Experience the feeling of weightlessness with a Zero-G experience. The program is offered in nine cities, with a price tag of just under $5,000.


Dorrance Planetarium at the Arizona Science Center is also a must-visit. Current shows include Dynamic Earth, Grand Tour of the Solar System, Super-volcanoes, and Arizona Skies.


The Marston Exploration Theater at ASU offers five different 3D astronomy shows. Marston shows differ from cinematic planetarium shows because they feature a live presenter and pilot, who will “fly” you to a sky phenomenon in 3D and answer your questions. While you wait for the show to start, explore the lobby gallery of interactive exhibits where you can check out a full-size Mars rover or learn where meteorites come from.


Arizona Challenger Space Center, currently in an interim location at Metrocenter, offers a variety of space summer camps for kids of all ages.

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