Lab launches interdisciplinary Space Science Institute

What are the next world-class, game-changing concepts and technologies that will address the most important questions in astrophysics or planetary science? Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) researchers will soon be better equipped to answer this question with the launch this month of a new Space Science Institute (SSI), intended to boost cross-discipline collaboration and discovery.

Sponsored jointly by LLNL’s Physical and Life Sciences (PLS) and Global Security (GS) organizations, SSI will build on Livermore strengths in astrophysics, earth science, nuclear science and engineering, cosmochemistry and data science to develop a pipeline of LLNL-led projects and mission-ready people. According to Glenn Fox, PLS principal associate director, the new institute will foster a strategic vision for LLNL’s space science research while growing and enhancing its external profile in the space science community. It also will develop a next-generation workforce for LLNL’s space science programs.

“We have entire communities at the Lab working on space science and technology topics,” Fox said,  “and we thought it would be a great idea to pull them together under this umbrella where we could get people interacting who might not have been previously and looking at the science together.”

Exploring new opportunities, as a community


Megan Eckart will serve as the Space Science Institute's first director.

Megan Eckart, a recently appointed associate program leader for the Space Science and Security Program in the GS Directorate, will serve as SSI’s first director. Eckart has a doctorate in physics from Caltech and worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center until joining LLNL’s Physics Division in 2018. She  leads X-ray microcalorimeter research projects within the Astrophysics and Advanced Diagnostics group and calibration for the joint JAXA-NASA X-ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission Resolve instrument.

“Megan is ideally positioned to provide leadership and promote collaborations between the academic community, space science agencies and the Laboratory, in the pursuit of creative and innovative research at the forefront of space science and technology,” Fox noted.

The institute’s launch coincides with a heightened interest in space activities by the Department of Energy (DOE), which gained a permanent seat on the National Space Council in 2020. DOE and NASA are redoubling their long-standing partnership in space science, Eckart said: “We’ll be hoping to feed into that agency-level collaboration and open new opportunities.”  

The group’s focus over the next several months will be on initial programming, such as a virtual seminar series — one that mixes internal talks and external visitor presentations, with an eye to sparking and incubating potential projects. They also will map out structure and governance. “We want input from our LLNL community to help shape the institute,” Eckart said.

An entry point for collaboration

One of the goals is to bring LLNL scientists who have ideas for new experiments or observations together with researchers such as the Lab’s space hardware group or external partners who can translate ideas into missions. Groups at Livermore already work with colleagues at other hubs for space research, such as Goddard, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. SSI is intended to help support these relationships and engage with a wider range of institutions active in space science research.

SSI will be that front door,” Fox said, “where we can hopefully pull all those threads of space science together. It should be an enabling organization, helping people figure out who to team with and what internal projects to invest in. The institute can help bring those ideas out as well as help our people to engage with NASA programs and develop opportunities for students and postdocs.”

A bridge to challenges in space security

LLNL has a long history of excellence in space science and technology; researchers have contributed to many experiments and space missions, as well as to projects at ground-based observatories. Teams in LLNL’s Space Science and Security Program are tackling space security projects to address emerging security challenges for the U.S. government. SSI will strengthen the bridge between space science and space security by building the scientific workforce and creating a more interactive community of space scientists.

Ben Bahney, the program leader for Space Science and Security, noted that “the SSI will be looking to push the frontier of new scientific missions and enabling technologies, which will expand the boundaries of what we can do to both understand our universe and to protect U.S. national security.” 

Huban Gowadia, GS principal associate director, observed that the new SSI will not only push LLNL into new and exciting areas of science, but it “will also be a key enabler for LLNL’s unique role in the space security mission by strengthening our workforce pipeline and our relationships across government and academia. This will only help Livermore build additional credibility in new areas of space science and technology.” 

Accordingly, a key focus for SSI will be to build a pipeline of talent: SSI will provide opportunities for postdocs and junior scientists, growing the next generation of space science. Internal and external SSI-sponsored talks will provide occasions for junior researchers to present ideas and meet possible collaborators while leaders will encourage Livermore researchers to join review panels, to give them experience serving the space community and augment their understanding of strong proposals.

“We know we can’t do it all, but SSI wants to help drive collaborative discoveries while fostering cohesiveness, a sense that we know what we do and what our strengths are,” Eckart said. “What areas are we going to expand into? What are we going to be known for a decade from now?”

- JC Ross, Technical Information Department