Galaxy Quests


By Kathy Svitil

Published Jan 1, 2007 8:00 AM

The star AB Pictoris, "only" about 30 million light years old.

Up, Up and Away

All that space hardware is obviously going to good use. But what about the Big Question: When are we going back out there in the flesh? The answer: 10 to 15 years, if then.

The challenge of sending people beyond Earth's orbit isn't just a matter of money and governmental initiative. Scientists and engineers need to ante up the technology: new forms of propulsion, innovative materials, better methods to protect the health of astronauts, and more. Researchers at UCLA are taking the lead in a number of areas, studying spacecraft fires, working on better fuel cells and methods to detect leaks in rocket engines, and developing cutting-edge diagnostic instruments.

For example, at the Institute for Cell Mimetic Space Exploration (CMISE), one of NASA's new University Research, Engineering and Technology Institutes, an interdisciplinary group of researchers is working to fuse biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technologies to improve the health and welfare of astronauts.

Enceladus, one of the largest of Saturn's 56 moons, which some say is the source of the planet's famous rings.

Among the developments: a cell-phone-sized, fully automated lab-on-a-chip to perform clinical screening on astronauts in real time, using just a drop of blood. Chih-Ming Ho, the Ben Rich–Lockheed Martin Professor of Engineering and the director of CMISE, explains: "Astronauts routinely sample their blood, but there's no way to do a real-time analysis. Instead, they sample it, freeze it, and bring it back to Earth," a delay in testing that means health problems, such as high radiation exposure, a constant concern in space, might not be caught until after astronauts return to Earth. To assist in screening astronaut health, CMISE engineers and scientists have also devised optoelectronic "tweezers" for handling small objects such as blood cells, bacteria and viruses.

Thrill of Discovery

Listen to Professor Andrea Ghez describe the thrill of "Unveiling a Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way."

When we return to our Moon, soar to our neighbor planets and travel to far-off galaxies, our spacefarers will get checkups with a tiny drop of blood. Our scientists will know why planets wiggle, what temperature they are, and whether or not they have brothers or sisters. They may understand black holes. Perhaps even the unseen energy that powers the universe. And every bit of knowledge will have come from someone who began their journey by asking "why" as a kid, loved Flash Gordon, or just looked up in wonder and asked, "What's out there?"

"To ask why I do what I do," concludes Russell, head of the Dawn mission, "is akin to asking Lewis and Clark why they felt the need to explore. They explored the edge of our maps. I explore at the edge of our understanding."