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To the Moon: Chemistry Alum's Career Reaches New Heights

David Landis developed spectrometer and optics used on NASA's LCROSS mission and helped discover water on the moon.

Date: 12/28/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Provided by Peter Schultz and NASA.
Chemistry alumnus David Landis can add an interesting feat to his resume: he helped send ALICE to the moon.

Pete Schultz, Dave Landis and Anthony Colaprete.
David Landis (center), seen here with LCROSS science team member Pete Schultz of Brown University (left) and NASA's LCROSS principle investigator Anthony Colaprete, was the only private sector member of the science team to work on the LCROSS mission.

In this case, ALICE is a NASA-dubbed spectrometer that was part of the scientific payload on their Lunar CRater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission, the media-hyped mission that culminated in October that confirmed the presence of water on the moon by crashing a rocket into the moon.

“I’ve always been a space nut,” Landis says, who graduated from University of Cincinnati with a BA from the Department of Chemistry in 1990 and a PhD in 1994. “I think it’s amazing that I was able to participate in a potentially important discovery that—aside from potentially providing useful resources for manned missions to the moon—may help us answer the unanswered question of how the moon was formed.”

NASA scientists announced that water was apparent in two spectroscopic measurements taken during the mission, including the UV and visible spectrometer Landis worked on. Considering it cost more than $100,000 to transport one gallon of water to the moon, discovering 25 gallons of water in a small area within one permanently shadowed crater holds wide implications for further space exploration. Scientists believe the water collected on the moon’s surface in the permanently shadowed crater over millions of years may potentially act as drinking water or even rocket fuel in future missions to Mars and beyond.

LCROSS rocket.
NASA's LCROSS mission took place in October and obtained evidence that water exists on the moon.

Landis established his company Aurora Design and Technology in 2006 after years at Ocean Optics, a manufacturer of optical sensing products. Landis had two roles in the development of the LCROSS science payload: first, partnering with Ocean Optics, he designed and built the UV/VIS spectrometer. Secondly, he designed, developed and delivered the optics responsible for viewing scattered and reflected light in the dust cloud (called the ejecta plume) after the rocket impacted the moon’s surface.  Landis also served as the only private sector member of the LCROSS science team.

“Cameras were included on the spacecraft to look for water but they don’t give good scientific data. That’s where the two telescopes came in,” Landis says. “The spectrometer can tell you what the kicked-up material is made of, whether it’s made of water, organic molecules, metals or something else. It has the ability to tell you the chemical composition, as well as the size and shape, of the particles that exist in the ejecta plume.”

Building these mission-specific spectrometers requires a great deal of manual dexterity and intuitiveness. It helps that Landis built a fiber optic sensor from scratch for his dissertation at UC.

“David has always looked for new ways to make things. He’s mechanically gifted,” says Professor Carl Seliskar, Landis’ dissertation advisor.  “What he’s doing today with NASA is a large-scale version of many of the things he’s developed in the past.”

LCROSS payload.
NASA's LCROSS payload includes the optics and spectrometer built by Landis.

Landis’ work was such a success, NASA has given him contracted positions on two new NASA missions: LADEE and O/OREOs. LADEE will orbit the moon and categorize dust particles in the lunar atmosphere, while O/OREOs will test how microorganisms and organic molecules survive when exposed to the stresses of space. Both missions require custom-made spectrometers.

The goal, Landis says, is to convince NASA that it can develop payloads that are significantly less expensive, much faster to develop and still provide exceptional-quality scientific data. While large corporations consistently put million-dollar price tags on their technology, Landis was able to design, manufacture and delivery the spectrometer for the O/OREOS mission for less than $60,000.

The fact that the LCROSS mission was a complete scientific and engineering success has Landis and many others excited.  “What I provide is proof that commercial instrumentation can actually last in space,” he says. “LCROSS proved that it is possible to do space missions significantly cheaper than they’re currently done.”

He continues, “Fortunately, LCROSS was a complete success, so I hope that it can be a model for how things can be done differently but still result in great science.”

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