The University of Arizona is taking its balloon-based space research to the next level, with a new lab sprouting up at the UA Tech Park at The Bridges on Tucson’s south side.
And nearby, the UA Tech Park’s first office building at The Bridges is starting to buzz with activity as major UA tech agencies including Tech Launch Arizona begin to move in.
The UA’s Mission Integration Lab, under construction on the north edge of The Bridges off East 36th Street, features a roughly 40-foot-tall, hangar-like “high bay,” where researchers and students can work on instruments, telescopes and high-altitude balloon technology.
While the UA has long been involved with NASA programs including balloon-borne research, the Mission Integration Lab will make the UA even more competitive for research missions such as NASA’s Long Duration Balloon flight missions, said Carol Stewart, associate vice president of Tech Parks Arizona.
“We know we can attract substantially more NASA-funded projects,” Stewart said, citing the UA’s “moonshot” goal of boosting its annual research funding to $1 billion from about $761 million in fiscal 2020. “We think this is a very smart investment for the university.”
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While no balloons will be inflated or launched there, the Mission Integration Lab was specifically designed to accommodate large pieces of flight hardware, such as research platforms mounted on balloon-borne gondolas.
The lab will have an overhead crane and space for an environmental chamber to simulate conditions at the edge of space.
“This is really for working on the payload — the highly technical portion of those balloon-borne missions,” Stewart said.
The Mission Integration Lab is led by Buell Jannuzi, director of the Department of Astronomy and Steward Observatory in the UA College of Science.
Balloon-borne missions fill an important niche between ground-based observatories and space telescopes, providing a way to deploy telescopes and other instruments to altitudes where they get less interference from Earth’s atmosphere without the need for a full-blown space mission, Jannuzi said.
Stewart said the UA is investing $4.75 million in the Mission Integration Lab, which will be used by researchers across campus and help attract corporations looking to advance their tech through public-private partnerships.
“It’s going to be used for multiple projects, they will come and go, student groups will come and go, and that connection with the university is going to be terrific,” she said.
UA astronomy professor Dan Marrone, one of several UA researchers pursuing balloon-borne astronomy, is co-investigator on the Terahertz Intensity Mapper, or TIM, a NASA-funded balloon mission designed to create a giant map of galaxies over 5 billion years of cosmic history.
Another balloon-borne observatory spearheaded by the UA is the Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO), which is led by Christopher Walker, a professor of astronomy, optics and engineering.
The mission, which will carry an infrared telescope to study the life cycle of stars, is funded by NASA and has been approved for launch in December 2023.
Across The Bridges property to the south, the UA has begun to occupy The Refinery, a four-story, 120,000-square-foot office building that will house several university agencies and anchor further development.
Tech Launch Arizona, the UA’s technology commercialization arm, moved in mid-April into a roughly 12,000-square-foot space comprising nearly half of the first floor.
The UA’s tech-oriented business incubator, the UA Center for Innovation, is preparing to move into an adjacent first floor space this fall, along with a small office and collaborative area for the UA’s Office for Research, Innovation and Impact.
The UA Applied Research Corp. (UA-ARC), a nonprofit corporate spinoff of the UA created in 2019 to work on defense projects, began moving to a 15,000-square foot space on half of The Refinery’s fourth floor last week.
Other UA agencies due to move into The Refinery include UA Online, which is slated to move into a 16,000 square foot space on the building’s third floor this fall.
The third floor also will house a small “touchdown” space for the UA College of Applied Science and Technology, an online school based in Sierra Vista that offers degree programs in cyber operations and intelligence and information operations certified by Defense Department agencies.
Stewart said the developer is finalizing a leasing opportunity with a private-sector tenant for the remaining space at The Refinery, part of the original plan for the building.
“We’d love to see industry rubbing elbows with our academic tenants over there,” she said.
The move to The Refinery was a move up for Tech Launch Arizona, which solicits inventions from UA faculty members, helps them develop and patent them and licenses them to private companies including startups founded by faculty.
TLA for most of its nearly 10-year history has been housed at the 1960s-era former Tucson Electric Power Co. headquarters on West Sixth Street.
Doug Hockstad, assistant vice president of Tech Launch Arizona, said The Refinery is a little further from the main UA campus than the old TEP building, but The Bridges site allows for collaboration with other UA agencies and is expected to attract more private research.
“To an extent, I feel more part of the campus here, because TEP was just a building by itself, a mile and a half from campus,” he said. “This is going to be a building with a bunch of other research buildings and companies around it, two miles south of campus, so we’re almost no further and we’ll be around other people.”
Tech Launch Arizona had a $1.6 billion economic impact on the local economy from fiscal 2017 through 2021, according to a report released Wednesday, May 18, by the UA.
Long-term plans by Tech Parks Arizona have called for a lab building to be built in the UA area of The Bridges, which comprises about 65 acres in the larger, 350-acre multi-use development.
Arizona Public Media, the UA’s nonprofit public broadcasting affiliate, is in the design phase for a new $45 million, 50,000-square-foot building to be built at The Bridges by 2025.
Stewart said she is working with the developer of The Refinery, Salt Lake City-based Boyer Co., on concepts for another building but nothing has been finalized.
TLA’s space features cubicles and offices for its roughly 30 employees, including licensing managers, who help protect and license technologies developed at the UA, as well as conference rooms and open collaborative spaces.
“We wanted a lot of space, as much open space we can get, and hopefully there is a lot more energy and activity with all the open space,” Hockstad said.
And when quiet is needed, the new Tech Launch office includes soundproof one- and two-person “phone booths” where agency employees and faculty clients can meet.
Another of The Refinery’s initial tenants, UA-ARC, is focused on extending the UA’s research reach by handling technology that requires compliance with regulatory and security measures the university is not equipped to handle.
Established in 2019 as the next generation of the UA Defense and Security Research Institute, UA-ARC is focused on solving complex national security problems with a focus on cyber operations, quantum computing, hypersonics, optics, space and medicine.
UA-ARC has about 10 employees, and President and CEO Austin Yamada said that while that will grow, the corporation will rely on faculty expertise from across the UA campus.
And while the UA-ARC’s space at The Refinery doesn’t include labs, it includes flexible project meeting rooms that are connected by dividers that can be removed to create larger spaces.
Austin Yamada, president/CEO, of the University of Arizona’s Applied Research Corporation
“We’re very small, and intentionally so,” Yamada said. “We’re here to facilitate the university’s leveraging their research enterprise into applications where previously they weren’t able to operate.”
There are number of reasons why the UA-ARC is needed, Yamada said, including areas constrained by government security requirements or contractual terms the university can’t accept.
UA-ARC is a member of several defense-related consortia that are able to work through a streamlined federal funding vehicle known as “Other Transaction Authority” (OTA) that is not subject to regular Federal Acquisition Regulations — which Yamada said can be impractical for getting much-needed new technologies onto the front line.
“All the hoops we have to go through to avoid fraud, waste and abuse — that’s all well and good,” said Yamada, whose 25-year government career included a stint as deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism.
“The end result is you usually end up deploying something that’s obsolete,” he said.
UA-ARC is part of the National Armament Consortium, the largest collaborative organization working with the Pentagon to develop arms technologies in support of the nation’s security.