News Column

Expanding NASA Business with Global Partnerships

Jan. 14, 2013

Tom Beal


Tucson's Planetary Science Institute is expanding its workforce and office space, even as it braces for potential cuts in federal spending for planetary exploration.

The nonprofit institute was founded 40 years ago by two University of Arizona planetary astronomers who wanted to provide a home for scientists to pursue their research without going to work for a NASA center or a university.

It relies primarily on NASA funding for its activities, and that money has continued to grow, said director Mark Sykes.

The institute's revenues, 98 percent of them from NASA, grew 11 percent last year to $9.3 million.

The institute is remodeling and adding 3,300 square feet of office space to its headquarters in a business park at 1700 E. Fort Lowell Road.

It employs 110 scientists and support staff, with 42 of them at its Tucson site. The other scientists are scattered across the globe.

That distributive work model continues to attract researchers, Sykes said, especially those with a "two-body problem" who can pursue their own careers while residing where their spouses are employed.

Sykes, who calls the nonprofit institute "a consulting services business that doesn't have shareholders," wants to expand its NASA funding while also finding ways to end its total reliance. It is seeking involvement in planetary science programs in Japan, China and elsewhere.

One domestic program in development, the Atsa suborbital observatory, is seeking private contributions to underwrite the cost of building a telescope and camera that will make routine flights above the Earth's atmosphere in an XCOR Aerospace Lynx spacecraft.

That project will eventually be self-sustaining, Sykes said. Astronomers will be able to rent time for their observations.

It also seeks philanthropic funding to boost its education and outreach program, which currently uses NASA stipends for middle-school teachers to attend workshops in planetary science.

It recently hired a coordinator for education and public outreach, in addition to a controller and a development officer.

The added space will house the education activities and provide room for the institute's Mars researchers.

Mars will dominate NASA funding in the coming years, said Sykes -- a development that he calls a "radical descoping" of a mission that now ranges across the solar system.

Right now, Planetary Science Institute researchers are involved in missions to Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Within five years, it will be all Mars, he said.

"It's not planned. It's more like kind of by default."

Sykes said he will argue for a more comprehensive vision of planetary exploration when he talks to staffers of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in Washington, D.C., this week.


Distributed by MCT Information Services

Source: (c) 2013 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)

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