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CoE unveils project to go on future mission to Mercury

Amid a hopeful discussion about the future of the space program, the College of Engineering (CoE) Feb. 14 unveiled the Fast Imaging Plasma Spectrometer (FIPS), an instrument designed for NASA's MESSENGER mission to Mercury.
Patrick Koehn, left, and Thomas Zurbuchen pose with FIPS, an instrument that will go on a NASA mission to Mercury. Koehn earned his Ph.D. while working on FIPS, and Zurbuchen led the team that developed it. (Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

"(Mercury) is one of the least-explored planets," said Thomas Zurbuchen, a research scientist at CoE who led the team of faculty, students and others that developed FIPS. "This is really a breakthrough technology."

The instrument was engineered by the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences (AOSS) department. The project demonstrates how the creation of high-performance, low-weight instruments can be used to explore the solar system without risk to human life. FIPS, which weighs about three pounds, will study the speed and composition of the gas in the environment of Mercury. It is scheduled for a 2004 launch.

The event at the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Building was filled with excited pronouncements about what can be learned from FIPS. But officials also discussed the more somber issues involving space exploration.

To commemorate the seven astronauts who died in the Columbia disaster, Stephen Director, dean of CoE, asked for a moment of silence. Organizers decided to hold the event after the tragedy, he said, "but we do so with heavy hearts."

U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Bloomfield Township) noted it is a "sad time" for the space program. But he also expressed hope about the future. "We're not going to shrink from the exploration of space," he said.

Knollenberg told the audience, largely made up of high school and college students, that NASA needs a new generation to join its ranks as many longtime employees reach retirement age.

Richard Fisher, director of NASA's Sun-Earth Connection Division, thanked Knollenberg for his encouraging words about space exploration. He also praised the FIPS project.

"This instrument is going to a special vantage point not very far from the sun," Fisher said. "It's very exciting."

Information from Neal Lao and Bill Clayton at the College of Engineering was used in this article.

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