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Upward Trajectory | Launching ASU Into Space


By Skip Derra

In 1986, when he got his first big grant to build an instrument for NASA, Phil Christensen didn’t have a grand vision of where it would lead.

But he did have a dream.

“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this at ASU— build the instrument here instead of Santa Barbara [where it resides]?’” says Christensen, a Regents’ Professor and the Ed and Helen Korrick Professor of Geological Sciences in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE). “People would chuckle and say, ‘Well, maybe someday.’”

“It was kind of funny. At the time, ASU had no idea how to deal with a contract that big [roughly $10 million]. To go from a university—not even a Research I university at that time—to ISTB4 and building instruments on campus is pretty remarkable. To actually have it occur is very satisfying,” he adds, referring to the Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building (ISTB), where Christensen designs and develops spacecraft infrared remote sensing instruments.

In the thirty years since he landed that first big NASA grant for a device called a “thermal emission spectrometer” that measured the infrared spectrum from the Martian surface, Christensen has built a stellar reputation for developing NASAcertified instruments that have redefined our view of Mars.

He has built six in all, and a seventh instrument is on the drawing board. His latest completed instrument was designed, built, and tested in ASU’s ISTB4, a first for the university. His work on the Osiris-Rex Thermal Emission Spectrometer (OTES) instrument elevated ASU into the elite class of universities in the United States that can build such instruments on their campuses.

Christensen’s work has generated buzz in the school, where multiple ASU teams now have proposals in for NASA instruments and entire missions.

A recent success is Craig Hardgrove, an assistant professor who recently won a CubeSat mission that will map the moon’s water deposits.

“Phil is the pathfinder for all the others,” says ASU Professor Jim Bell, who has also developed instruments for NASA, including the Mastcam-Z instrument that will be the eyes of the upcoming Mars 2020 rover.

Just as he has inspired his fellow faculty, Christensen also inspires students. He uses funding from his endowed professorship mostly for student activities, like a freshman seminar where he casually engages sixty students in heady space exploration topics over pizza and soft drinks. He even brings in real-world problems that he faces in his instrument projects, making the exercise real for the students.

“Getting students to think about problem solving, whether it’s climate change or how to build a better solar panel, it gives them a sense that when they leave the university, they think, ‘I can do that. I can solve that problem,’” Christensen says.

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