NASA alliance yields opportunities

by Amelia Acosta | 1/25/11 11:00pm

On the third floor of Wilder Hall, in the little-visited Room Nine, students huddle around technology-cluttered lab benches as they build balloons that will be released into the sky to monitor atmospheric conditions. The project, known as GreenCube, began several years ago as a result of the College's partnership with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, established in 2007 as part of JPL's Strategic University Research Partnerships.

JPL provides funding for the student-run project, which sends satellites into the atmosphere on balloons to assist the collection of atmospheric data, according to associate professor of physics and astronomy Kristina Lynch, who oversees the project.

GreenCube was developed in order to increase student participation in the department's research, she said. Lynch said she received funding for the project from JPL largely because of the communication that had previously been established by the partnership.

The monetary support from JPL is essential to the survival of GreenCube, according to Amanda Slagle '12, who became involved with the project through her Women in Science Project internship during her freshman year.

"All of our funding comes from JPL, and GreenCube wouldn't be a program at all without JPL," Slagle said. "The grant pays for all of our material costs and also student salaries."

Members of GreenCube hope to continue its connection with JPL as the program progresses and expands, Lynch said.

"We have a proposal [for funding] for the upcoming year, pending with JPL, that hopefully we'll hear about next week," she said. "The students like the prestige of working on a JPL project and we've had students go on to work there, so that's a nice link. Plus they send us money, and that's always a benefit."

Because of the JPL grant, GreenCube has been able to launch four balloons, and plans to launch a fifth on Thursday, according to Sean Currey '11, who is working on the project as part of his senior thesis.

"The ultimate goal in data collection varies with the balloon," Currey said. "Our ultimate goal is to improve the way that telescopes are calibrated so that astronomers can take better measurements. We're putting a light onto our balloon and measuring how much the atmosphere affects how much light is getting through."

In December, five Dartmouth faculty members vice provost for research Martin Wybourne, computer science professor Devin Balkcom and physics and astronomy professors Brian Chaboyer, Mary Hudson and Robert Caldwell visited JPL's headquarters at the California Institute of Technology, where they communicated with colleagues working on similar projects within NASA, Caldwell said.

"The big picture of the JPL's NASA center is that they are developing tools and technologies, knowledge for space missions and discovering the cosmos," Caldwell said.

Caldwell said that in addition to speaking to members of JPL's theoretical astrophysics group, he was reminded of the important work taking place outside his specialty.

"We were able to take a tour of the micro-devices lab," Caldwell said. "We also saw the room where they are building the next Mars robot. It's a bunch of men in white suits working like mad, just like an Intel commercial."

A major benefit of the partnership between Dartmouth and JPL is the job opportunities it provides, Hudson said.

"[The partnership is] a conduit for our students to come to the JPL, and it is seed money for collaborations between the JPL scientists and scientists at the College with the hope that we could write larger proposals to NASA," she said.

During the visit, members of the JPL staff expressed their satisfaction with some of their current employees who are Dartmouth graduates, according to Hudson.

"The JPL is so excited about students who are coming from Dartmouth that they were actually handing out cards and asking us to send them more," Hudson said. "It's really gratifying to hear such enthusiasm from JPL about our students."

Dartmouth is one of 10 strategic partners who work with JPL to achieve long-term goals in research, education and future job opportunities, according to JPL's mission statement.