A Giant Leap for Space Science Innovation

Applied Research Building Sets New Ceiling for UArizona

By Dave Perry

Take one small step into the new, $89-million Applied Research Building at the University of Arizona, and you’ll recognize it is one giant leap for UArizona’s nation-leading space sciences.

The facility allows UArizona to both reach for the stars, and to create near-Earth solutions. It is “science, non-fiction,” fueled by imagination.

“This is one of the coolest buildings I’ve ever seen,” said Elizabeth “Betsy” Cantwell, UArizona senior VP for research and innovation, at the April 5 dedication of the three-story, 89,000-square-foot building on East Helen Street between Mountain and Cherry avenues. “This is what the modern research infrastructure will look like.”

Cantwell spoke inside the High Bay Payload Laboratory, beneath a 40-foot-high reinforced concrete ceiling securing two five-ton cranes – named Wilbur and Wilma, of course − that hoist heavy weights. Within the lab, scientists and engineers can assemble and store high-altitude stratospheric balloons and evaluate how they perform.

Around the corner, the Thermal Vacuum Chamber, a 40-ton, 13-by-24-foot enclosure is so large it had to be placed ahead of building construction. In the chamber, extreme vacuum pressure can be achieved, and temperatures can be dropped to -315 degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s cold; temperatures on Mars average a mere -81 degrees.

Those two facilities are believed to be the largest of their kind on a U.S. university campus. When Mark Kranz, VP and design director for building designer SmithGroup, learned of their scale, “even our jaws dropped,” he said.

Nearby, you’ll find the Anechoic Chamber, lined with metal sheeting and covered with four-sided carbon-filled foam cones resembling spikes from a torture chamber. It is a high-technology sound studio, with no echoes and no radio waves bouncing about nor invading. Within the chamber, researchers can evaluate the performance of experimental antennae for use in deep-space communication systems, or in terrestrial cell phone networks.

Upstairs, there can be close encounters with:

• The “NASA-esque” Mission Operations Center, equipped to manage NASA Class D and balloon-borne missions thousands and even millions of miles away;

• The CubeSat Laboratory, where nanosatellites the size of a kitchen toaster can be built;

• The relocated Imaging Technology Laboratory, already a world-leading supplier of advanced scientific imaging sensors for visible, ultraviolet and X-ray light detection;

• The Laboratory for Advanced and Additive Manufacturing, where researchers can design and fabricate complex materials used in national security, space exploration, biomedicine and communications;

• The Space Materials Curation Facility, housing anything from rocket body paint samples to meteorites. Its contents give clues about the more than 170 million pieces of “space junk” orbiting Earth, and can help guide space traffic management, national security and planetary defense.

Collectively, the Applied Research Building – or ARB − is what SmithGroup’s Kranz calls “a high-tech container for some of the most unique research in the world.”

UArizona is No. 1 among U.S. universities in astronomy and astrophysics research and development expenditures, and has been so annually since 1987. It is No. 5 in NASA-funded activity.

“This is that next step to stay No. 1,” said Tim Swindle, director of the UArizona Space Institute, director of the Arizona Space Grant Consortium, and director emeritus of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory. “We have to change to keep up with the world.”

As Arizona’s land-grant institution, “we owe it to the state of Arizona to deliver the amazing people and amazing research” within the ARB, Cantwell said. “You will see real things happening.”

In fact, you’ll actually be able to see the Thermal Vacuum Chamber from East Speedway. It is lighted, next to tall windows, and clearly visible at night. Cantwell calls it “research on display.” It’s UArizona’s intention to showcase this “jewel piece of the building,” so “it piques the interest of why the building is here,” said Mike Lee, project director of construction contractor the McCarthy Building Companies.

“This is a story of individuals who will be in this building, building amazing new technology” to address “the largest and most challenging societal problems,” Cantwell said. “The ARB allows us to apply world-class research to practical, real-world needs.”

It is expected to reinforce the university’s relationships with industry partners such as Honeywell, Raytheon Missiles & Defense, Lockheed Martin and NASA. It is already generating new inquiries from businesses wishing to manage satellite and balloon projects. Research conducted in the ARB can translate into “major societal impacts,” Cantwell said, from the development of wearables and noninvasive imaging for better health care outcomes, to advanced manufacturing, and to the construction of advanced sensors for modern autonomy, robotics, and artificial intelligence applications.

“Every year,” UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins said, there ought to be a birthday party at the ARB so “we can continue to watch the incredible science that’s done in this building.” Its creation represents “an investment in fundamental discovery” that can be translated into “commercial products that make this world a better place.

“That sounds trite, but I so fundamentally believe it,” Robbins said.

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