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Exploring space is much more than joy rides

Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson has scraped the edge of space; former Amazon executive Jeff Bezos has returned from a 66.5-mile-high journey in a spacecraft built by his Blue Origin company; and Elon Musk’s Space X has a deal with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to land Americans on the moon.

Some Americans may think space has become a vast playground for billionaires, but these business and technology celebrities are not the only people with their eyes fixed far beyond our skies.

From climate scientists to entrepreneurs to defense experts, a host of people are engaged in what can be dubbed “The New Space Age,” an era when the promise of discovery seems as limitless as the universe itself. Private space flights, climate data analysis, asteroid deflection and mining, neutrino tracking at the South Pole and Perseverance’s exploits on Mars have all generated headlines in recent months.

Wisconsin has played a strong role in space science and engineering since the days of pioneer satellite meteorologist Verner Suomi at UW-Madison and Mercury 7 astronaut Donald “Deke” Slayton, a Sparta native who later managed flight crew selection. That tradition continues – and it may be more important than ever as the trillion-dollar space economy evolves. Some examples: Engineers produced by the UW-Madison were chief among those behind the Mars Perseverance flight, its rover and surface copter. Adam Steltzner was chief engineer for the Mars 2020 project and the late Jim Willmore helped develop the chip controlling the Ingenuity copter.

Renewed interest in fusion energy dates to the last manned Apollo mission in 1972, when astronaut and geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt scooped up helium-3 soil – a potential fuel source – on the moon. Schmitt was later an adjunct professor in the UW-Madison College of Engineering, where research continues today.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is the first detector of its kind, designed to observe the cosmos from deep within the South Pole ice. It is operated by the UW-Madison in partnership with the National Science Foundation and scientists from 53 institutions and 12 countries.

Scientists at the UW-Milwaukee led an international group in identifying the collision of a black hole and neutron star, which took place 130 million years ago but was undetected until a few years ago. The wholesale swallowing of the star by the black hole sent gravitational waves rippling across at least millions of light-years to reach Earth, and proved one of Albert Einstein’s major physics theories.

Wisconsin’s emerging role in space will be discussed Sept. 14 during a Wisconsin Technology Council luncheon in Madison. Panelists are Steve Ackerman, vice chancellor for research and graduate education and a professor in the UW-Madison Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences; and Eric Wilcots, dean of the College of Letters and Science and a professor of astronomy.

Renewed interest in space starts with unlocking the secrets of the universe. It is about better understanding our origins, and about making practical advances in science and technology that will improve life on Earth. Someday, our ability to aim tiny rockets at hurtling asteroids millions of miles away may save the human race from extinction.

Space is increasingly about commerce, as well. Space startups raised more than $7 billion in 2020, twice the total from two years earlier, according to figures from space analytics firm BryceTech Communications, human life support, mining, tourism, reusable rockets, satellites, supply chains and energy are among investment targets.

Nearly 65 years ago, America was shocked into the space age when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. A sense of national emergency was born because the Cold War compelled the nation to maintain a competitive edge, especially in the strategic arena of space flight.

Thanks in part to private moguls Branson, Bezos and Musk, a sense of opportunity is being rekindled while providing a timely reminder of the world’s need for scientific analysis and discovery. We may never take a joy ride into space, but we may all benefit from them.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

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