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Lunar Lab Grows
Lunar Lab Grows
20 May 2004
(Source: University of Arizona)

From Lori Stiles, UA News Services, 520-621-1877
May 20, 2004

Contact Information Michael J. Drake

Joan Weinberg

Charles Sonett
520-621-6935 (office)
520-299-3937 (residence)

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In 1958, the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory was housed on the University of Arizona campus in a 725-square-foot Quonset hut. Beginning this summer, the lab comprises three separate university buildings.

Researchers with UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) have outgrown the Gerard P. Kuiper Space Sciences Building, 1629 E. University Blvd. The building was constructed with NASA funds in 1964 and acquired an addition in 1993. The lab now employs 300 people but will soon employ 450, said Michael J. Drake, LPL director and head of UA's planetary sciences department.

A dozen scientists have already moved into a newly renovated 40,000-square-foot building at 1415 N. Sixth Ave., in Tucson. It will be the Science Operations Center for LPL's $318 million "Phoenix" mission that will land on Mars in June 2008. LPL senior research scientist Peter Smith, principal investigator for the Phoenix mission, and a few key personnel moved to the center a few weeks ago. By the time Phoenix is launched in 2007, more than 200 people will be working at the operations center.

LPL dedicated the Charles P. Sonett Space Sciences Building on April 30. The building, located at 1541 E. University Blvd., just west of Flandrau Science Center, was formerly the UA Campus Health Center. Initially, about 45 scientists and support staff will move into the 30,000-square-foot building around the first of June.

Sonett building occupants will include UA planetary sciences Professor Alfred McEwen and his team at the Planetary Image Research Laboratory (PIRL). PIRL researchers have processed thousands of spacecraft images from every planetary body that humanity has visited with spacecraft. The most recent of these images are from the Galileo mission to Jupiter, Mars Global Surveyor, the Mars Exploration Rover mission, and the Cassini spacecraft, which is about to begin its 4-year tour of Saturn and Titan.

McEwen is principal investigator for HiRise, the $36 million High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment that will be launched on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft in August 2005. Additional scientists and staff will move into the Sonett building when HiRise swings into full operation.

Others moving into the Sonett building include planetary scientists who now occupy the 9th floor of the Gould-Simpson Science Building (nicknamed "LPL West"), LPL educators leading the U.S. Department of Education-funded AzTEC project (Arizona Teacher Excellence Coalition), the university's LPL-sponsored Science and Mathematics Education Center, LPL-supported Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), and Steward Observatory staff who are working on the Lockheed Martin Space Systems-funded "LOTIS" project.

"It did not just happen that we got to be where we are today," Drake said at the Sonett building dedication.

Gerard P. Kuiper (1905-1973), who is considered the father of modern planetary astronomy, moved to the UA in 1958. Kuiper hired the first outstanding LPL scientists, and won NASA funding for a building to house them in in 1964. Drake called this the "nucleation event."

Sonett directed LPL from 1973 - 1977. He became the first to head UA's planetary sciences department, authorized by the Arizona Board of Regents in 1972.

"Bringing Sonett to UA was one of Gerard Kuiper's best moves," Drake said. "Chuck (Sonett) understood the breadth of what planetary sciences would become, and why it was important to hire first rate people. He laid the roots of the modern lab -- and what has become the best planetary sciences department in the world."

LPL research scientist emeritus Ewen A. Whitaker moved with Kuiper from Yerkes Observatory to UA in 1958. Whitaker said that the Sonett building is the 10th premises that LPL has occupied, adding, "I wonder where we're going next."

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Last Updated: 20 May 2004