June 5, 2014

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USU’s Space Dynamics Laboratory

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USU’s Space Dynamics Laboratory

From Northern Utah to Deepest Space

By Devin Felix | Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

June 5, 2014

In December 2009, a rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. On board was the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, a space telescope on a mission to map the entire sky in infrared light and reveal distant objects that had never been seen before. Over 13 months, it captured 2.7 million images, mapping the sky one and a half times and creating a complete atlas of the celestial sphere. Among the images it captured were distant comets, colorful nebulae, neighboring galaxies and the coldest brown dwarf yet discovered.

Before WISE ever gazed deep into the galaxy from 325 miles above Earth, it took shape in North Logan, Utah. The telescope was one of many projects carried out by the Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL), a non-profit research organization owned by Utah State University. For more than six decades, it has played an important role in the nation’s exploration of space and its defense efforts. SDL has a record of more than 500 successful missions and employs hundreds of scientists and engineers. It has also contributed to the education of thousands of students destined for high-tech fields and helped establish Utah as a go-to destination for high-tech aerospace projects.

“Some of the innovation we are doing and the research we are doing bring a lot of notoriety to not only SDL, but to Utah State University and to the state in general,” says Niel Holt, SDL’s director. “Some of the things like the WISE instrument and the discoveries it’s making help the science community and bring a lot of notoriety and recognition to the state as well.”


The Space Dynamics Laboratory began in the years just after WWII, with American experiments using German V2 rockets on Earth’s atmosphere. These experiments led to the creation of the Upper Air Research Laboratory (UARL) at the University of Utah and the Electro-Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University in 1959. UARL relocated to USU in 1970 and the organizations combined in 1982 under the name Space Dynamics Laboratory.

In 1996, SDL became a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) for the U.S. Department of Defense, sponsored by the Missile Defense Agency. That designation means SDL is a go-to source for government agencies in need of aerospace contractors.

“It provides us a contract mechanism where they can come to us directly if what they’re asking us to do is within our defined core competencies,” Holt says.

Though it is owned by USU, the lab gets no funding from the university or the state. Instead, all of its revenue comes through contracts, usually from the Department of Defense and NASA—though other agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are also occasional customers.

SDL brought in $62 million in revenue in 2013. More than half came from projects dealing with Defense Department command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (referred to by the military as C4ISR). These projects include work on software and hardware used by ground troops to gather and interpret information, as well as ongoing updates in technology in F-16 aircraft at Hill Air Force Base.  

Core Competencies

SDL focuses on building, testing, and calibrating sensors and instruments for missions in space and for use by the Department of Defense. It also creates systems to manage, interpret and represent the data its sensors collect. On the WISE project, SDL created the sensors and data management portions of the satellite, while other organizations built the infrastructure and guidance components of the craft.

SDL is also a significant player in the growing industry of small satellites, which can vary in size from barely larger than a Rubik’s Cube to about the size of a desk chair. Since 1987, USU has hosted the annual Small Satellite Conference, which brings scientists, engineers and other members of academia and the small satellite industry from around the world to Logan. Though SDL doesn’t run the conference, it is heavily involved every year.

Small satellites are cheaper to build and put in orbit and can be designed and built more quickly. This means there’s less of a loss if they malfunction or are subject to an accident, which often makes them more attractive to venture capital firms and other investors, Holt says. The need for small satellites has also driven forward the development of processes for miniaturizing satellite components.

The low cost and time requirements of small satellites also give students a chance to be involved in creating, launching and tracking satellites. In October 2011, a project that was designed, built and tested by USU students at SDL was put into orbit. The Dynamic Ionosphere Cubesat Experiment (DICE) consists of two rectangular satellites about the size of a box of tissues. They were designed to analyze variations in plasma density in Earth’s ionosphere, which can affect communications, surveillance and navigation systems in space and on Earth. The project gave the students the chance to deal with the types of issues that face all satellite designers such as fitting instruments into a small space, deploying objects into orbit safely, enabling instruments to deal with extreme temperatures and keeping satellites powered. The satellites gathered valuable data for two years and are still capable of communicating with Earth nearly a year and a half after their expected lifespan, says Erik Stromberg, a student who worked on the project and is now employed by SDL. 

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