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University of Colorado Boulder leads in NASA astrophysics technology grants to universities

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A new NASA report shows that the University of Colorado Boulder is the top university recipient of NASA astrophysics technology grants. The majority of this funding was granted to researchers at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) and the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA), a center affiliated with the university’s Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS) Department.

“The fact that CU Boulder received more NASA astrophysics grants than any other academic institution reflects the leadership and impact our researchers, faculty, students and staff have through discovery and innovation in the space sciences,” said Massimo Ruzzene, CU Boulder’s acting vice chancellor for research and innovation and dean of the institutes. “This combination of research and scholarship makes CU Boulder, and the state of Colorado, an unrivaled hub of space science research.”

The 2022 NASA Astrophysics Biennial Technology Report, which analyzed grant recipients from 2009 to 2020, lists CU Boulder as the recipient of 31 grants totaling more than $27 million. The only recipients to receive more grants were two NASA centers: Goddard Space Flight Center and the Jet Propulsion Lab. The report provided an accounting of technology grants from the three NASA Astrophysics Program Offices: Cosmic Origins (COR), Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP), and Physics of the Cosmos (PCOS).

Spectrographs in Space
The report follows the release of the National Academies’ Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020. The decadal survey, a plan to guide the field of astronomy for the coming decade, recommended a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which launched in 1990.

Hubble, which will celebrate its 33rd birthday on-orbit in April, has had several spectrographs. These instruments collect light from distant objects and break it up into the different colors that compose it. Each chemical element has a characteristic color—or wavelength—at which it emits light. Spectroscopy thus allows astrophysicists to measure the properties of distant objects in the universe, including temperature, chemical composition, and density.

In February 1997, astronauts installed the Hubble Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), which combined a camera with a spectrograph. In 2009, astronauts installed the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which had been conceived and developed by CASA researchers in the mid-1990s. It is the most sensitive ultraviolet (UV) spectrograph ever flown in space.

However, according to the decadal survey, the proposed next-generation telescope will need to be even more powerful and more sensitive to UV light to reveal new features of the galaxies, stellar nurseries, supernovae, and exoplanets it will study.

Novel technology for new telescopes
Image credit: Zayna Sheikh, Univ. ColoradoLASP researchers Brian Fleming and Kevin France have been leading the effort to develop some of these novel technologies for next-gen telescopes that will help better measure UV wavelengths. This includes electron beam lithography and chemical etching to fabricate more advanced and efficient diffraction gratings, which break light up into different colors as it is collected.

One particular type, called Echelle gratings, are used for high-resolution spectroscopy, including on the Hubble STIS. Fleming, who is the principal investigator of one of the projects featured in the NASA report, Electron Beam Lithography Ruled Gratings for Future UV/Optical Missions, aims to improve them further.

“This new method for fabricating gratings will boost the efficiency of our instruments and also allow us to design compact systems in which the grating helps correct for system aberrations,” said Fleming. “This is really important when trying to do wide field-of-view, multi-object spectroscopy, like is planned for the next-generation observatory.”

The new technology Fleming is working on would enable a spectrograph with less scattered light and higher efficiency in a more compact package. This instrument would be used to characterize the chemical abundances of stars and probe exoplanet atmospheres.

Credit: LASPThe test gratings were motivated by the technical requirements of France’s Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph (CHESS) sounding rocket, which launched four times between 2014 and 2018, and the Suborbital Imaging Spectrograph for Transition region Irradiance from Nearby Exoplanet (SISTINE) mission, which launched three times between 2019 and 2022.

“We worked with Penn State on a novel diffraction grating design for the CHESS rocket instrument, and this collaboration has grown into the larger electron beam grating program that Dr. Fleming is leading now,” said France. “Our research group tries to bridge the gap between developing the technology for future missions and employing it on experimental space missions like rockets and CubeSats. In the process, we train our students and early-career researchers in state-of-the-art space instrumentation and mature the technology that is being adopted by NASA’s ambitious space missions of the next two decades.”

In total, the new NASA report identified 120 unique grant-receiving organizations, most of which received only one grant. However, 19 organizations received 58 percent of all grants, with CU Boulder leading the ranking of grant-receiving universities.