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The university will use the money to build and launch an instrument into space to collect data on space weather

By Denise-Marie Ordway, Orlando Sentinel 8:58 p.m. EDT, April 12, 2013

UCF has been awarded a $55 million grant from NASA to build and launch an instrument into space to capture "unprecedented" images of the Earth's upper atmosphere, the university announced late Friday.

The instrument, about the size of a microwave oven, will take pictures and collect data that will help scientists better understand the weather in space and how it affects such things as communication satellites and GPS signals.

While the University of Central Florida has been involved in some capacity with at least a dozen high-profile NASA missions in recent years, this will be the first one that it will lead. In fact, with this grant — the largest in UCF history — the university will become the first in Florida to lead a NASA mission, officials said. Related Florida economy is looking up, UCF prof says NASA's plan to lasso asteroid originated with Italian student UCF exploring open-air bar in Bright House Networks Stadium Photos Pictures: Historic pictures of UCF Pictures: UCF College of Medicine" title="Pictures: UCF College of Medicine" height="105" width="187"> Pictures: UCF College of Medicine Pictures of UCF Medical School first day of class See more photos » Topics Science University of Central Florida Financial Aid See more topics »

Richard Eastes, a research scientist with UCF's Florida Space Institute, said he had been working on the proposal for years before applying to NASA for the grant in 2011. After a year and a half of waiting and fine-tuning the idea, Eastes learned Friday that NASA will spend $55 million over five years to help him turn it into reality.

"It shows that other scientists think what we're planning to do is some of the most important science in the world," he said. "And for UCF, it's a chance to demonstrate that the university can play a more significant role in space research."

The location of the launch, scheduled for some time in 2017, has not yet been determined. But Eastes said that the Kennedy Space Center is a possibility.

A commercial satellite company will launch the device upon one of its communication satellites — an arrangement meant to save UCF the high cost of launching the device into space on its own.

While Eastes will lead the project, a team from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado will build the 50-pound instrument, which will use two specialized cameras to take photos of the Earth.

The cameras will capture digital images of wavelengths of light that are shorter than the human eye can see. The pictures will allow scientists to study the changes in the Earth's upper atmosphere and temperature over time and across the Earth's surface.

The information collected on the GOLD — Global-scale Observations of the Limb and Disk — mission will help scientists better understand the weather in space, where temperatures can change by hundreds of degrees within a few hours.

Researchers want to know more about how such dramatic changes in space weather might, for example, affect a satellite's altitude or how radio frequencies travel through the atmosphere.

Such information can help scientists predict how radio waves and communication signals will behave, which could lead to advances in areas such as how airline traffic is directed, UCF officials said.

"GOLD's imaging represents a new paradigm for observing the boundary between Earth and space," said Bill McClintock, a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado who will be working on the project. "It will revolutionize our understanding of how the sun and the space environment affect our upper atmosphere."

UCF officials said work on the project will begin immediately. After the instrument is launched in 2017, it will relay data to the UCF team and scientists worldwide for at least two years, according to UCF.

Eastes said the mission could be extended for another several years, allowing for the collection of more data over time. Such instruments, he said, should be able to function well in orbit for eight years or more. or 407-420-5470.

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