‘Desert Moon’

From Arizona to the moon and the dawn of planetary science

Jason Davis, NASA photo, Jacob Chinn photos

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously declared that Americans would walk on the moon by the end of the decade. But at the time, scientists couldn’t say for sure whether the moon’s surface was solid or just a thick layer of dust. While NASA engineers focused on building rockets, scientists scrambled to map the moon, send robotic probes to its surface and select astronaut landing sites.

At the University of Arizona, astronomer Gerard Kuiper led the effort to understand the moon and established the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, one of the world’s first research institutions dedicated to the solar system and the new field of planetary science. 

The UA College of Science is ranked No. 1 among observational, theoretical and space astronomy programs in the United States by the National Science Foundation. 

Read some of the many reasons why.

• Built the Historic Steward Observatory

The historic Steward Observatory, founded by astronomer and dendrochronologist A.E. Douglass, was officially established in 1916 and dedicated in 1923. Its 36-inch-diameter Newtonian telescope was the first astronomical telescope to have been built using only American-made products. By 1963, however, the observatory’s once solitary setting — ideal for stargazing — had been encroached upon by an expanding Tucson, and its original telescope was removed from the dome and relocated to a darker mountain site on Kitt Peak. A smaller 21-inch Cassegrain telescope was installed in its place for student use. The original dome is a campus landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

• Led the Phoenix Mars Mission — The first public university to lead a NASA mission

The 2007 NASA mission to Mars, led by the UA’s Peter Smith, was the first NASA mission led by a public university. The HiRISE camera, developed at the UA, recorded the Phoenix landing from an orbiter 200 miles away, drawing wide praise in 2008. One of the goals of the mission was to study the history of water on Mars. When a tiny sample of substrate material collected by a robotic arm on the lander was heated in the lander’s oven, the resulting vapor was identified by its molecular weight as water. “It was a surprise,” says William V. Boynton of the UA Lunar and Planetary Lab, whose team spent three years designing the oven. “We thought we had a dry sample, but we got ice.” 

• Built the MARS HiRISE camera 

The UA built the HiRISE camera that revealed evidence of water on Mars. This HiRISE image, called Feathery Ridges, shows a valley filled with linear ridges. Geologically, these ridges are often referred to as transverse aeolian ridges, or TAR, and they take a variety of forms. They sit at right angles to the direction of the valley because the topography funnels the wind along the trough. At this location, some of the TAR have secondary structures, likely small ripples. It is common for sand dunes to be covered in small ripples, often with different orientations that may be shaped by winds redirected by the larger dunes. The secondary structures shown here have an unusual radiating/converging pattern, giving the TAR a feathery appearance. 

• Making the world's largest mirrors

At the Richard F. Caris Mirror Laboratory, a team of scientists and engineers is making giant, lightweight mirrors of unprecedented power for a new generation of optical telescopes including the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile. When completed in 2024, it will be the largest ground-based telescope in the world. Students and faculty will work on its mirrors collaboratively in a hands-on learning environment. 

• Owns or manages 20 telescopes

Steward Observatory provides access to world-class facilities for ground-based radio and optical observing. Among these are the Large Binocular Telescope, 6.5-meter aperture telescopes in the northern and southern hemispheres, millimeter and submillimeter telescopes with cutting edge receivers and a suite of small telescopes suitable for programs including surveys and long-term monitoring of astronomical objects. The Giant Magellan Telescope and Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, in Chile, are coming online in the next few years.

• Discovered more than half of all known near-Earth objects

Mount Lemmon SkyCenter is a science learning facility at the Steward Observatory’s site on the 9,157-foot summit of Mount Lemmon. When darkness falls on the mountain, telescopes observe the skies for nebulae, stars and other objects. The Catalina Sky Survey, whose UA researchers have discovered more than half of all known near-Earth objects, scans for possible incoming asteroids. Download the new Mount Lemmon Science Tour app on the App Store.

• Managing space traffic control for space object behavioral science

Astrodynamicist Moriba Jah has joined the College of Engineering and the Office for Research and Discovery to spearhead the new UA Space Research Initiative to track the behavior of space debris, flag potential threats and compile usable information for governments and private companies. 

• Guiding future space travel and artificial intelligence

The UA is advancing data management, orbital navigation, artificial intelligence and supersonic flight capability to guide future space travel and exploration. Engineering Professor Wolfgang Fink is developing robots to send to extreme space environments. 

• Transforming big data 

The UA runs the National Science Foundation’s $100 million CyVerse, which has engineered a cybersecure plant database infrastructure that will transform big data management in the space domain. Data leaders at the UA include Sudha Ram, Anheuser-Busch Professor of MIS, Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

• Leading the OSIRIS-REx Mission

The UA is spearheading the OSIRIS-REx mission, which will take samples from a distant asteroid and return them to Earth to be studied by UA researchers. It is led by Dante Lauretta and a team of scientists, with graduate and undergraduate students learning beside them.

• Teaching with innovation and research excellence

Chris Impey is a University Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and associate dean of the College of Science. He has over 180 refereed publications on observational cosmology, galaxies, and quasars, and his research has been supported by $20 million in NASA and NSF grants. He has won 11 teaching awards and has taught two online classes with over 70,000 students. He’s written over 40 popular articles on cosmology and astrobiology, two introductory textbooks, a novel called “Shadow World” and seven popular science books.

• Learning with technology 

Astronomer and Senior Lecturer Thomas Fleming uses Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium’s theater as a classroom. It has recently been renovated with a state-of-the-art projection system, new seats, a layout that optimizes the viewing experience and enhanced lighting and sound. 

In the documentary “Desert Moon,” narrated by former astronaut Mark Kelly, alumnus Jason Davis ’14 uses the lens of the space race to examine the fascinating chain of events that led to the creation of planetary science by astronomer Gerard Kuiper at the University of Arizona. “Desert Moon” features interviews with Kuiper’s fellow scientists, restored archival footage and photographs. Watch the documentary at desertmoonfilm.com.