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New AU Institute Supports Research in Space Science and Technology

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Hubble Telescope

The Washington DC Metropolitan area is home to world-leading institutions dedicated to Space Science and Technology, including NASA headquarters and the Goddard Space Flight Center, and other government and industry labs and offices located throughout the region. To take advantage of American University’s unique location at the center of all this activity, the AU Institute for Integrated Space Science and Technology (ISSTI) was formed in 2017 and will have its official launch party in the Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building this October 19 as part of the College of Arts and Sciences STEAM Faire activities.

Originally envisioned by former AU physics professor UJ Sofia, ISSTI grew out of the Department of Physics with the goal of attracting and supporting externally funded astronomy and astrophysics research scientists. Over the last year, under the direction of physics professor Phil Johnson, its mission has expanded to create opportunities for students, staff, and faculty. ISSTI is also working together with the Department of Physics to promote STEM education in space-related fields.


ISSTI has various exciting interdisciplinary projects at the cutting edge of science and technology. For instance, ISSTI member Fred Bruhweiler and his team are studying a new type of nova-like star ("red transients") using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, and are also studying our Sun using data from the NASA solar flare observatory RHESSI which was put into orbit in 2002. ISSTI member Demetrios Poulios is developing laser, fiber optic, and lidar systems for NASA missions, including the Global Ecosystem Dynamic Investigation (GEDI) mission to study the Earth's forests and topography, and subsystems for possible future life-hunting NASA missions to Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's moon Titan. Last Spring, ISSTI co-sponsored the symposium “Environments of Terrestrial Planets Under the Young Sun: Seeds of Biomolecules”, help at NASA Goddard and organized by ISSTI research professor Vladimir Airapetian. ISSTI Director Phil Johnson is PI on two cooperative agreements with the Goddard Center for Astrobiology that support 5 full-time research faculty and staff investigating the origins of life in the Early solar system, including research on the composition of comets with the goal of understanding the origins of planetary water and organic molecules, and the remote sensing of planetary atmospheres, including Mars and Earth.


With the goal of building opportunities that make AU an exciting school for STEM-interested students, the Department of Physics and ISSTI, under the leadership of physics professorial lecturer Cyndee Finkel and ISSTI research faculty Fred Bruhweiler, have recently partnered with Virginia Space, operator of the Mid-Atlantic Space Port, to launch three student-built ThinSats. These satellites are roughly the size of a cell phone and will have a 5-10 days of orbit life before burning up on reentry. They will be built in the Myers Design and Build Lab (DaBL), and the project will include outreach to local middle and high schools. The AU – Virginia Space ThinSats are expected to launch next Fall. 


There are presently 20 ISSTI members, all appointed in the Department of Physics, with external funding totaling $7.5M, including 8 research faculty, 3 postdocs, 3 staff scientists, 3 programmatic staff, and 3 regular physics department faculty. There are another 6 recently appointed research faculty actively seeking funding. Current ISSTI sponsors include NASA (11 awards), Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (2 awards), NSF (1 award), JPL (1 award), and the Space Science Telescope Institute (3 awards). Professor Johnson expects to add more externally funded research scientists this coming year, while also strengthening ties to other AU departments where there are overlapping interests in space, technology, innovation, and outreach. In Summary, ISSTI is creating amazing opportunities for AU students, staff, and faculty to work on cutting-edge space science and technology.