No. 6 Space City of the Southwest

Led by UArizona, Tucson Reaches for the Stars


By Rodney Campbell

University of California-Berkeley. University of Arizona.

In its recent Best Global Universities rankings, U.S. News & World Report said those are the top two American public universities in space sciences. UArizona earned the lofty ranking for its research reputation in space sciences as well as the number of citations and publications by its researchers.

The magazine ranked UArizona 10th overall in the world among all universities and seventh in the nation. 

“It is gratifying to see the University of Arizona listed alongside many of the world’s premier academic research institutions,” UArizona President Dr. Robert C. Robbins said. “Our university is home to many breathtaking scientific innovations, and it is upon this foundation that our faculty members seek to make further extraordinary discoveries.”

Tucson really is a “Space City of the Southwest,” as coined by local talk radio host Zach Yentzer, also executive director of Tucson Young Professionals.

On a recent visit here, NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy called UArizona a “crown jewel” among U.S. universities doing space science research. She called the school a significant partner with a “towering reputation in astronomy, planetary science and astrophysics.”

The university’s space-related ventures, which started with the Steward Observatory’s first telescope and building in 1923, have definitely accelerated over the past several years: 

• UArizona researchers played a leading role in producing the first images of the galaxy’s black hole, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope, an array of radio telescopes named after the boundary of the black hole beyond which no light can escape.

• Launched in 2016, NASA’s UArizona-led OSIRIS-REx mission is an achievement for the team led by                      Principal Investigator and Planetary Sciences Professor Dante Lauretta. The craft landed on the asteroid Bennu in 2020 to sample and collect the asteroid’s organic material, which will be analyzed by UArizona researchers. Recently, it was announced that OSIRIS-REx would visit a second asteroid.

• NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to  the Hubble Space Telescope, launched last December. UArizona husband-and-wife researchers Marcia and George Rieke played leadership roles: Marcia is the principal investigator for the Near Infrared Camera, the heart of the Webb Telescope for which she led the development. George is science team lead for the Mid-Infrared Instrument, added to the telescope to expand its reach.

• Kristopher Klein, UArizona assistant professor of planetary sciences, will serve as deputy principal investigator for NASA’s HelioSwarm mission when it launches in 2028. The purpose is to better understand plasma, the state of matter that makes up 99% of the visible universe. The nine spacecraft in the “swarm” will collect data for at least a year.

Private sector companies, all of which owe their existence to UArizona, which provided employees to some of them from the pool of its College of Science graduates, help make Tucson a true Space City.

FreeFall Aerospace develops antenna technology for satellite communications, fixed and mobile ground stations, aerial platforms and a variety of commercial and government applications. The company got its start in 2016 with high-frequency radio technology developed at UArizona.

“We are very much tied to Tucson,” CEO Doug Stetson said. Collaboration with UArizona “benefits FreeFall Aerospace with a pipeline of talented engineers from UA, partners like AGM Container Controls and local investors like UAVenture Capital. Each milestone our products reach is a crucial step for FreeFall, the University of Arizona and Tucson’s  developing space economy.”

Phantom Space is a technology and transportation company whose goal is to lower space access barriers through mass manufacturing of launch vehicles, satellites and space applications.

Phantom Space CEO Jim Cantrell, who started the company in Tucson in October 2019, enjoys the close cooperation he sees in Southern Arizona.

“Tucson has been a growing hub for space manufacturing for years,” said Cantrell, whose company provides spacecraft construction and full-service launch capability. “It’s inspiring to see the kind of work being done here from companies like Paragon Space Development and FreeFall Aerospace. Unlike most cities, there’s a real community here for aerospace technology, a community that motivates, inspires and encourages growth.”

World View Enterprises, which specializes in space tourism and exploration, started a decade ago thanks to a collaboration with Pima County. The organization’s headquarters at Spaceport Tucson is where the company manufactures stratospheric balloons and fabricates the crafts it flies on remote sensing missions. World View also launches stratospheric missions from Tucson. The space tourism company recently announced that reservations for its edge of space flights had reached 1,000.

CEO Ryan Hartman said the region’s history in the aerospace and space industries and the presence of a world-class university made Tucson the best choice for his company’s headquarters.

“Tucson provides an exceptional breeding ground for some of the top aerospace talent in the world,” he said. “Being headquartered in Tucson has allowed us to recruit and employ some of the best and brightest minds in the industry who exemplify our company ethos.”

Phantom Space’s Cantrell is optimistic about the industry’s future in Tucson. He sees many more accomplishments coming from Tucson-based space companies.

“The need to explore outer space isn’t going anywhere,” he said. “The need for space technology and manufacturing isn’t going anywhere. The need for Tucson’s bustling industry isn’t going anywhere. Tucson, and by extension the state of Arizona, will continue to lead the way when it comes to space technology production, manufacturing and launching.”

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