Currie to Send Next Gen Retroreflectors to Moon

NGLR corner cube retroreflector seen next to Apollo era corner cube retroreflectorPhoto of NGLR corner cube retroreflector (L) next to an Apollo era version (R). Image credit Doug Currie 

In 1969, University of Maryland physicist Doug Currie helped design three still-in-use lunar instruments placed on the moon by Apollo 11, 14 and 15. Fifty years later, Currie is lead scientist for a just-approved NASA project to place next-generation versions of these instruments on the Moon.

Known as lunar retroreflectors, the instruments reflect laser pulses sent from Earth back to their exact origin point, allowing precise measurements of the Earth-moon distance; providing data to better understand aspects of the moon’s interior, including its liquid core; testing questions of fundamental physics, and allowing better mapping and navigation of the lunar surface.  

According to Currie, a senior research scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, the new UMD-led project can lead to improvements in all of these research areas: (1) because of the hundred fold improvement in the accuracy of individual ranges using the new retroreflectors and (2) by the increased accuracy produced by a larger number of reflectors with a wider lunar area covered by the network.  Currently, there are five retroreflectors on the moon: the three placed by Apollo missions and two French-designed instruments placed by Soviet lunar missions. The Currie-led proposal would add three Next Generation Retroreflectors for a total of eight lunar retroreflector arrays. 

“Our Next Generation Lunar Retroreflector is a 21st Century version of the instruments currently on the Moon. Each placement of a Next Generation lunar laser ranging array will greatly enhance the scientific and navigational capabilities of retroreflector network,” said Currie. “These additions improve the mapping and navigation capabilities important for NASA’s plans to return to the Moon and by 2028 establish a sustained human presence.” 

“And these also will significantly boost scientists’ ability to use the network to conduct important science, such as new tests of general relativity and other theories of gravity. Such studies may help us understand the nature of mysterious dark matter, which appears to constitute almost 27 percent of the Universe,” he said. 

According to a NASA release, the Next Generation Lunar Retroreflectors (NGLR) is one of 12 new science and technology payloads selected by the agency to help humans study the Moon and explore more of its surface as part of the NASA’s Artemis lunar program. The agency says the retroreflector and the other 11 investigations and demonstrations “will help the agency to send astronauts to the Moon by 2024 as a way to prepare to send humans to Mars for the first time.”

The selected investigations will go to the Moon on future flights through NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) project. According to the agency, the CLPS project allows rapid acquisition of lunar delivery services for payloads like these that advance capabilities for science, exploration, or commercial development of the Moon. 

NASA has selected the first three commercial Moon landing service providers that will deliver science and technology payloads to the lunar surface. According to Currie, the Next Generation Retroreflectors are not currently scheduled by NASA to be among the payloads carried on those three commercial Moon landings. “However, we believe because of the low size and weight of these retroreflectors, each mission could safely add one to their planned payloads for each of these commercial delivery missions,” he said. 

"The selected lunar payloads represent cutting-edge innovations, and will take advantage of early flights through our commercial services project,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. "Each demonstrates either a new science instrument or a technological innovation that supports scientific and human exploration objectives, and many have broader applications for Mars and beyond.”

The NGLR team consists of Currie as Principal Investigator and Simone Dell’Agnello of the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare, Laboratori Nazionali di Frascati, Italy, as Co-I/Co-PI. Co-Investigators are Christopher Davis of the UMD Electrical and Computer Engineering Department; Giovanni Delle Monache, also of the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare; James Williams of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and John Rzasa and Dennis Wellnitz of the UMD Department of Astronomy. Assistant Research Scientist Chensheng Wu, a member of Professor Chris Davis’ Maryland Optical Group, has also done crucial work on the design of the Next Generation Lunar Retroreflectors.

(Currie was interviewed by ABC News about the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.)

Links for more information:

What Neil & Buzz Left on the Moon | NASA Science Mission Directorate

NASA Selects 12 New Lunar Science, Technology Investigations 

Dr. Douglas Currie next to the Orbit Beyond lander. Credit Udit Shah of Orbit Beyond

 UMD Professor Dr. Douglas Currie next to the Orbit Beyond lander. Credit Udit Shah of Orbit Beyond

Pictured (L-R) in 1969 UMD physicist Doug Currie, UT McDonald Observatory Director Harlan J. Smith, NASA Scientist-Astronaut Philip Chapman, UMD physicist Carroll Alley, & Scientist-Astronaut Don Lind

Pictured (L-R) in 1969 are University of Maryland (UMD) physicist Doug Currie, University of Texas (UT) McDonald Observatory Director Harlan J. Smith, NASA Scientist-Astronaut Philip Chapman, UMD Professor of Physics Carroll Alley and NASA Scientist-Astronaut Don L. Lind discussing use of the McDonald Lunar Laser Ranging Observatory (MLLRO) to send short laser pulses to the first Lunar Laser Ranging (LLR) Retroreflector left on the lunar surface by the Apollo 11 Astronauts. The MLLRO program was developed and initially operated by Professor Currie (then associate professor) with the support of the Godard Space Craft Center and the University of Texas. UMD’s Professor Alley was the Principle Investigator of the project to place LLRs on the moon to address lunar physics, gravitation, General Relativity and Earth physics.  The LLR Retroreflectors were designed and developed by a team that in addition to UMD physicists Alley and Currie, included scientists from universities and federal institutions that included Princeton University, NASA Goddard Space Craft Center, the National Bureau of Standards, Wesleyan University and the University of California. NASA’s Scientist-Astronaut program trained Ph.D. scientists & engineers as astronauts. Image courtesy Doug Currie.

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Wolfgang Losert Named Interim Director of IPST

Wolfgang Losert has been named interim director of the university’s Institute for Physical Science and Technology (IPST), effective July 1, 2019.

Losert will serve as interim director while the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS) conducts a national search to find a replacement for Christopher Jarzynski, who recently completed his five-year term as director. In addition to his IPST role, Losert will continue to serve as CMNS associate dean for research while CMNS Associate Dean Gerald “Jerry” Wilkinson takes on Losert’s responsibilities for graduate education.

“I want to thank Wolfgang for agreeing to serve in this capacity while we search for a new director of IPST,” said CMNS Dean Amitabh Varshney. “IPST is an important institute in our college. The interdisciplinary research the faculty members and students in IPST pursue is extremely valuable—they are truly expanding our understanding of the world around us.

IPST conducts interdisciplinary research in emerging areas at the boundaries between physics, chemistry, the mathematical and life sciences, and engineering. The institute also supports three interdisciplinary graduate programs in chemical physics, biophysics and applied mathematics.

“It is a great honor to serve as interim director of IPST, working with our star faculty and outstanding junior scientists at the forefront of interdisciplinary research,” Losert said. “When I look at our institute, interdisciplinary graduate training really stands out as a major accomplishment. IPST supports three interdisciplinary graduate programs and IPST faculty lead two prestigious NSF-funded interdisciplinary graduate training programs, the COMBINE program in network biology and the UMD node of the Physics of Living Systems Student Research Network. I look forward to working with our dedicated staff in support of IPST’s mission in the coming year.”

In his personal research, Losert aims to discover emergent dynamic properties of complex systems at the interface of physics and biology, with a focus on collective migration and activity of cells. He currently leads a $7.5 million Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative program funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and serves as co-principal investigator on a $20 million Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative center grant from the National Institutes of Health. Additional funding for Losert’s research comes from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He was elected fellow of the American Physical Society in 2017. 

Within CMNS and the broader scientific community, Losert actively fosters cross-disciplinary interactions and new research and educational opportunities. He helped launch and currently co-leads the American Physical Society Group on Data Science. He is part of a trans-university initiative of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (called NEXUS) that is developing new science and math courses for biology majors and pre-health care students that can serve as a national model. He helped initiate and co-directs the NCI-UMD Partnership for Integrative Cancer Research, which provides UMD faculty members and graduate students the opportunity to tackle pressing problems in cancer research in collaboration with National Cancer Institute experts. 

Losert joined UMD in 2000 as an assistant professor and has served as an associate dean in CMNS since 2014. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the City College of the City University of New York in 1998 and his diplom in applied physics from the Technical University of Munich in Germany in 1995.

During Jarzynski’s time as IPST director, he facilitated the recruitment of several faculty members to the institute: Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics Assistant Professor Daniel Dwyer, Mathematics Assistant Professor Lise-Marie Imbert-Gerard, Chemistry and Biochemistry Assistant Professor Pratyush Tiwary, and Mathematics Professor Konstantina Trivisa. Jarzynski also launched an interdisciplinary research team program in IPST to incubate new research fields. The first seed-funded team, led by Dwyer, is using microfluids to study antimicrobial resistance. The institute also advanced its leadership in the field of phase transitions in fluids and plasmas under Jarzynski by hosting U.S.-Russia workshops on the topic in 2016 and 2017.

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Physics Faculty Promotions

Vladimir Manucharyan, who was promoted to the rank of Associate Professor, is an experimentalist researching solid state physics with a focus on fundamental aspects of superconductivity and quantum technology applications. He is a Fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute and a member of the Physics Frontier Center. While at UMD he has received a Sloan Research Fellowship, a DARPA Young Faculty Award, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and a Google Faculty Research Award. He earned his Ph.D. at Yale University in 2012, researching quantum information with superconducting qubits, and was elected a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows for the term 2010-2013 before joining UMD in 2014.

Arpita Upadhyaya, who was promoted to the rank of Professor, is a biophysicist studying how physical properties of living cells are regulated to guide mechanical behaviors such as cell shape changes and force generation and how these guide physical regulation of cell function. Upadhyaya has received a Pappalardo Fellowship in Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, and the Richard A. Ferrell Distinguished Faculty Fellowship from the UMD Department of Physics. She holds a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame, and in addition to her work at MIT, was a researcher at UNC Chapel Hill before joining the Department of Physics and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology (IPST) in 2006.

Jay Sau, who was promoted to the rank of Associate Professor, is a condensed matter theorist studying topological principles to create protected solid-state and cold-atomic systems for quantum information processing. He is a member of the Joint Quantum Institute and Condensed Matter Theory Center, and has won an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award. He also received the Richard A. Ferrell Distinguished Faculty Fellowship from the UMD Department of Physics. Sau holds a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, and held postdoctoral appointments at Berkeley, the University of Maryland and Harvard University before his appointment as a UMD Assistant Professor in 2013.

Alberto Belloni, who was promoted to the rank of Associate Professor, is an experimental particle physicist who works on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. He has held several posts within the collaboration, and in September 2018 became convener of the CMS Standard Model Physics Vector-Bosons subgroup of about 100 physicists, dedicated to inclusive electroweak boson studies. In August 2018 he received the Richard A. Ferrell Distinguished Faculty Fellowship from the UMD Department of Physics. Belloni holds a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was a post-doctoral associate and research associate at Harvard University before his appointment as a UMD Assistant Professor in 2013. 

Robert Throckmorton was promoted to the rank of Assistant Research Scientist. He received his Ph.D. at Florida State University, and then accepted a postdoctoral position there, working at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. He joined the Condensed Matter Theory Center in 2013, and researches topics including semiconductor spin qubits, dynamical decoupling of decoherence and noise, interaction effects in graphene and strong correlations in three-dimensional Dirac-Weyl materials.

Przemysław Bienias was promoted to the rank of Assistant Research Scientist. After receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Stuttgart, he joined the Joint Quantum Institute  as a postdoctoral scholar. His research interests are at the intersection of quantum optics, molecular and atomic (AMO) physics, quantum information science, and condensed matter physics.

Dan Lathrop Named Distinguished Scholar-Teacher

Lathrop smoke cannonProfessor Daniel Lathrop has been named a University of Maryland Distinguished Scholar-Teacher.  He will be recognized during the university’s annual Convocation ceremony on Wed., September 18 at 3 p.m. in the Memorial Chapel. A reception will follow in the Chapel Garden.

The Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Program, established in 1978, honors a small number of faculty members each year who have demonstrated notable success in both scholarship and teaching. Distinguished Scholar-Teachers receive an honorarium of $5,000 to support their professional activities, and make public presentations on a topic within their scholarly discipline. Lathrop will give his lecture on October 29 at 4 p.m. in the PSC lobby.  

An interdisciplinary researcher with additional joint appointments in UMD’s Department of GeologyInstitute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics, and Institute for Physical Science and Technology, Lathrop studies turbulence—the chaotic motion of fluids such as air or water. Understanding turbulence is crucial to studying phenomena such as the flow of air over an airplane wing, water flowing down a drain or the behavior of Earth’s molten outer core.

Lathrop is particularly interested in Earth’s core, which generates a magnetic field that shields Earth from the sun’s radiation, allowing life to exist. Geological records show that the Earth’s magnetic field has reversed polarity numerous times in the past. When it does so, the magnetic field weakens, leaving the planet unprotected. However, scientists do not understand how Earth’s magnetic field is generated and what causes it to reverse. To investigate this question, Lathrop constructed a 3-meter spinning sphere filled with molten liquid sodium to model Earth’s core.

Lathrop was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2011 and a fellow of the American Physical Society in 2005. He also received a Presidential Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation in 1997.

In addition to his research career, Lathrop is an enthusiastic mentor. Since joining UMD in 1997, he has mentored nine postdoctoral scholars, 19 Ph.D. students, 10 M.S. students, and more than 60 undergraduate and high school students.

“It is rare—and wonderful—to find a teacher and mentor as fully engaged and enthusiastic as is Professor Lathrop,” wrote Steven Rolston, professor and chair of the UMD Department of Physics, in a letter nominating Lathrop for the award. “He provides not only scientific knowledge but his deep-down love of the lab and of learning.”

Lathrop earned his B.A. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1987 and his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1991.

Distinguished Scholar Teachers in the Department of Physics