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University to dedicate Suborbital Center of Excellence

New Mexico State University will dedicate its new Suborbital Center of Excellence at 3 p.m. Wednesday, April 24, with a ceremony followed by a reception and tours at the Physical Science Laboratory (PSL) building on the main campus in Las Cruces.

leading up to the dedication will include a lecture by NASA senior research scientist Eric Christian at 3 p.m. Tuesday, April 23, in Science Hall Room 107, and the launching of a sounding balloon at 10 a.m. Wednesday, April 24, at Aggie Memorial Stadium, weather permitting.

The Suborbital Center of Excellence, funded through a grant from the NASA Balloon Program Office of the Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va., will promote education, research and outreach in suborbital space engineering and science.

Suborbital programs include high-altitude scientific balloons, sounding rockets that are launched into the upper atmosphere for scientific research, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other aircraft, said PSL's Stephen Hottman, director of the center.

The dedication ceremony and reception will be held in the lobby of the PSL building, located on Stewart Street between Espina Street and Sweet Avenue. Speakers will include university President Jay Gogue and Steven Schmidt, special assistant to the NASA administrator.

Tours will include PSL's Modeling/Simulation Laboratory with demonstrations of atmospheric models, a telemetry station, the center's computer laboratory, and a National Scientific Balloon Facility booth with examples of balloon flight instruments. Other items related to ballooning, such as a parachute and a small-scale version of an ultra-long-duration "pumpkin" balloon, will be on display.

Middle and high school groups from the area will be given tours of the center on Wednesday morning. At 10 a.m., a sounding balloon with a small scientific payload is scheduled to be launched from the football stadium, if the weather is suitable.

Christian's lecture on Tuesday is part of a Distinguished Speakers Series planned by the center. Christian, a senior research scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, will speak on balloon research with a talk entitled "A TIGER in Antarctica."

NASA awarded the Physical Science Laboratory a three-year grant of nearly $700,000 to establish and operate the nation's only Suborbital Center of Excellence. The center's technical emphasis will range from aeronautics to the characteristics of the human operators who control the systems.

"Much of space science is built upon the foundation of suborbital research," said Bernice Merritt, NASA monitor for the Suborbital Center of excellence. "We are beginning a new endeavor to enhance suborbital platforms."

Steve Smith, chief of NASA's Balloon Program Office at Wallops Flight Facility, said the new center is important to this initiative. "It's geared toward stimulating interest in the work being done for suborbital missions, to have students realize this is a fun and challenging endeavor, so that in the future we will have good scientists and engineers to hire," he said.

The Suborbital Center of Excellence will sponsor student research projects at New Mexico State, support student co-op positions at Wallops Flight Facility, provide grants to faculty members who involve students in relevant research, and promote projects in secondary and elementary schools. It also will host national workshops and conferences.

PSL has worked with a variety of aerospace programs for more than five decades. The lab operates NASA's National Scientific Balloon Facility, headquartered in Palestine, Texas, which launches high-altitude helium balloons from sites all over the world. The lab also is involved in NASA's sounding rocket program.

For more information about the dedication, contact Sherri Clark, outreach and education director, at (505) 646-5033 or sheclark@psl.nmsu.edu.

Karl Hill
April 17, 2002