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Citadel News Service
30 Jul 2014

Post & Courier Report: Citadel astrophysics program may send students to space

Written by Bo Petersen and Photographs by Grace Beahm

To see the full story with photos, please visit the Post and Courier website here.

Adam Klingenberger's folks had to know this call was coming. Send the kid to college, he gets into a summer program and all of a sudden has a chance to go somewhere that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Where does he plan to go?


Clemson junior Adam Klingenberger created a tablet program to operate a telescope in a space shuttle. He’s working as an intern for Citadel physics professor Luke Sollitt, who is helping design the Atsa Suborbital Observatory that will include a mounted telescope that will be controlled by a scientist aboard the shuttle craft.

He’s working as an intern for Citadel physics professor Luke Sollitt, who is helping design the Atsa Suborbital Observatory that will include a mounted telescope that will be controlled by a scientist aboard the shuttle craft.

(Photo right of Luke Sollitt with Cadet Henry Mills in the background. By: Grace Beahm/Post and Courier Staff)

Klingenberger is one of two interns in a summer program at The Citadel who just might get up above the atmosphere for a few minutes next spring, working a telescope aboard an XCOR Aerospace commercial suborbital shuttle flight.

"At first they didn't believe me," Klingenberger said about his folks. He had, as the saying goes, some explaining to do.

Klingenberger, a Clemson University astrophysics student, and Cadet Henry Mills, a civil and environmental engineering student at The Citadel, are interning this summer with physics professor Luke Sollitt. Sollitt is helping design the Atsa Suborbital Observatory, a mounted, human-operated telescope.

The idea is that with someone immediately at the controls, the telescope can pinpoint a specific object in the whirling expanse of space, to read its infrared to ultraviolet color spectrum. That can't be done by telescopes in the atmosphere. In brief sub-orbital flights, it can't be done quickly enough by remote-controlled instruments.

The spectrum each material gives off is unique to it, so the reading can tell you, for example, whether an asteroid shooting toward earth's orbit is a chunk of rock or a pile of dust debris.

The flights also could accomplish something maybe nobody else is trying to do.

"This little program could significantly change what we think of as an astronaut," Sollitt said. "We're going to be doing first-rate, cutting-edge science from the very first flight with guys in space suits who, by the way, just graduated from high school a couple of years ago."

The value of that can't be underestimated. The Apollo moon flights of the 1960s inspired tens of thousands of people to go into math and science studies, and they are the groundbreaking brain trusts in those fields today, Sollitt said.

But the interest has waned. An opportunity to work in space could inspire the next generation.

Klingenberger, 20, was one of those inspired kids, fascinated by space even as a child, watching the innovative Blue's Clues science program on Nickelodeon and wandering through flip-page books about the planets.

Now he's just returned from Suborbital Scientists astronaut training in a centrifuge and hypobaric chamber at the NASTAR Center near Philadelphia, where he was whirled around to simulate the intense G-force of a space launch and then the weightlessness of sub orbit.

The pull of head-to-toe G-force "felt like all the blood was sinking down to my feet," he said. Then came the empowering "free" of weightlessness. "It felt like I could do anything with a 400-pound bench lift (weight training.) Pretty exciting for the nerd inside of me."

The students' study is being funded by the S.C. Space Grant Consortium through the Palmetto Academy program at College of Charleston. Sollitt is seeking funding to pay for the flights.

XCOR Aerospace is one of a number of private companies currently developing spacecraft. Its speciality is smaller, reusable sub-orbital craft to carry researchers, at what currently is figuring to cost id="mce_marker"00,000 per flight. The idea is to fly straight up like a rocket more than 60 miles high, then maneuver for some three to five minutes to allow the researcher to work before returning. The craft would take off and land on a runway like a plane.

Sollitt, 43, is one of those researchers who combine a meticulous manner with a gee-whiz thrill of the whole thing. Among other projects he was co-investigator on the 2009 LCROSS project that smashed a satellite into the moon, raising a dust cloud that confirmed the presence of water.

He was a Northrop Grumman space systems engineer in 2004 when he watched the first successful, non-government, manned space flight win the Ansari X Prize and said to himself, "Gee whiz, we should put a telescope on that." He began working with Planetary Science Institute senior scientist Faith Vilas to do it.

Depending on successful testing of both the telescope device and XCOR's sub-orbital craft, Sollitt could fly the first of five sequential test flights next spring, a "mere" 37 miles up and breaking the atmosphere for about 50 seconds.

Hopefully, Klingenberger and Mills could each get one of four longer, higher following flights the same week. Klingenberger can't help but grin when talking about it. Risky? He simply shrugs.

"If you don't do what you enjoy doing when you're alive, you're not really living," he said.

The Atsa Suborbital Observatory

What it is: Atsa is an astronomical telescope that collects spectral information from objects, either with filters or with a spectrometer. Each material in the universe has its own "spectral fingerprint" of colors from infrared to ultraviolet, so an object's spectrum indicates what materials it is made of.

What it means: Atsa is planned to be used studying near-earth objects, such as potential collision asteroids. Determining whether the asteroid is a rubble pile or a large chunk of rock is needed information if an attempt must be made to divert it. Other uses could include studying gamma ray burst afterglows - potentially dangerous radiations from the deep space explosions, and making atmospheric, climate or land use measurements. The telescope is designed to be a facility to conduct specific tasks sought by researchers who hire it.

Source: Luke Sollitt

To help:

Donations for the Atsa Suborbital Observatory flights can be made by visiting this link at The Citadel Foundation website or by sending them to: The Citadel Foundation, In support of ATSA, 171 Moultrie St., Charleston, SC 29409

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(843) 953-2155

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