Still reeling from the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, NASA unveiled its Fast-Imaging Plasma Spectrometer – the latest innovation in unmanned data-collecting spacecraft – to a roomful of University faculty, students and high school students from Michigan on North Campus Friday.

Five years ago, NASA conscripted University engineers to design FIPS for a 2004 mission to Mercury to study the effects of solar winds – energetic emissions fired from the Sun at 1 million miles per hour – on the planet’s terrain and atmosphere.

“(FIPS) will help us understand the foundations of what (Mercury) is and lead to the conditions that lead to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, senior associate research scientist for the University’s Space Physics Research Lab.

Zurbuchen said FIPS analyzes solar wind particles by receiving them through a small fisheye lens and ingraining them onto a data receiver.

Because Mercury and the Earth both have strong magnetic fields that attract Sun-ejected particles, the FIPS data will also reveal how solar winds affect our environment.

“We have an interesting facet to this particular kind of science,” said Richard Fisher, director of NASA’s sun-Earth Connection Division. “When (FIPS) is in the solar wind, it will be our first look at the solar magnetic field that will allow us to do long-range prediction.”

“We want to go to Mercury because it is one of the least explored planets,” Zurbuchen said, adding it is the closest planet to the sun. “I’ve been dazzled by the fact that there’s very likely ice at the poles of Mercury.”

Zurbuchen added FIPS’s compact size – it weighs 1.5 kilograms and is six times smaller than the next tiniest craft – decreases the costs associated with launching it on rockets. “The smaller the better,” he said.

Echoing statements by his fellow speakers, U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Bloomfield Hills) – who serves on the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding NASA – applauded strides taken by NASA and the University in wake of the Columbia tragedy.

“We want to go ahead,” Knollenberg said. “With the help of some aspiring engineers and scientists, we’ll build on the work of the last 40 years.”

Knollenberg said that while Congress will keep a watchful eye over the post-Columbia space program, he holds high expectations of FIPS missions – which may also include trips to Pluto.

“Congress passed last night a $513 million budget increase for NASA,” he said. “We also included $50 million to NASA to investigate the recent Columbia” accident.

“Any time an organization suffers a major setback, an air of uncertainty will surround it. NASA isn’t any different,” he added.

Citing the majority of NASA workers currently eligible for retirement, speakers encouraged students in the audience to pursue careers in space science.

“One of the objectives of NASA is to prepare the next generation of space explorers,” Fisher said. “You guys are going to have to take over at this point.”

Knollenberg said that in order to receive congressional funding, NASA must recruit and train more “students with advanced degrees” and develop more audacious missions.

“We ask (that) the plan increase the number of new young faculty,” he said. “Challenge yourself to enter a field that is a demanding one.”

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