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UC Berkeley to open space center at NASA Ames in Silicon Valley


Hannah Nabavi remembers how the stars in the night sky mesmerized her when she was little, instilling awe and humility in the face of the vast cosmos. Now a senior at UC Berkeley, Nabavi continues to pursue his passion for space as an engineering physics student and founder of a campus club to research and develop the advanced structures needed for aerospace. Eventually, she hopes to work in the commercial space industry.

She is part of a rising generation of young people drawn to space studies by the idealism, research challenges and career opportunities in this growing field. UC Berkeley aims to harness that interest with plans for a $2 billion, 36-acre space center at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, which will include needed classrooms, laboratories and housing – as well as collaborative research opportunities with NASA and private scientists. industry.

“The planned expansion of Berkeley’s physical footprint and academic reach represents a fantastic and unprecedented opportunity for our students, faculty and staff,” said Carol Christ, chancellor of UC Berkeley, during the unveiling of the project this week. “We are excited by the prospect of new collaborations that can accelerate the translation of research discoveries into inventions, technologies and services that will contribute to the common good. »

The Berkeley Space Center plans to capitalize on the growing global interest in space and work to keep California at the forefront of opportunity. As space exploration shifts from an industry dominated by governments to one increasingly shaped by commercial players – from giant SpaceX to niche start-ups – the $500 billion economy is poised to surpass $1 trillion by the end of the decade, according to projections by financial institutions and the nonprofit Space Foundation.

This broader connection between government, industry and academia is at the heart of the Berkeley Center. Discussions to create it began five years ago as NASA Ames sought since 2002 to add a major academic presence to its mix of federal and industrial researchers at Moffett Field in Mountain View.

NASA Ames Director Eugene Tu said the federal agency wants to connect with more students to inspire “the next generation of explorers.” Nearly 40 percent of NASA’s science and engineering workers are 55 and older, and an aerospace labor shortage is looming. He said NASA also wants to better connect with UC Berkeley faculty for possible research partnerships.

NASA Ames signed a 99-year lease with UC Berkeley, which created a joint venture with SKS Partners, a Bay Area development company, to help develop the site and find private-sector tenants. UC Berkeley will initially occupy 10% of the site and eventually expand the presence of UC campuses and affiliates to 40%.

UC Berkeley, for its part, has long hoped to build a satellite site to expand its reach beyond its aging and cramped campus. This trend has accelerated on other University of California campuses, which are under pressure to increase enrollment and build more housing, classrooms and laboratories.

In the past 13 months, UCLA has purchased two large parcels of property in the South Bay and another building in downtown Los Angeles. UC Davis is developing a technology campus, “Aggie Square,” in downtown Sacramento. And UC San Diego opened a four-story, 66,750-square-foot building downtown last year as a cultural, educational and business center.

Darek DeFreece, founder and executive director of the UC Berkeley project, said the campus plans to offer students a “semester in Silicon Valley” with both college courses and internships, as well as possible sabbatical leave for teachers on site. He said students and faculty will benefit from proximity to NASA researchers and facilities, including the world’s largest wind tunnel and powerful supercomputers. They will also work alongside 25 companies already on site, such as Google, and new tenants in the sector.

The project is approved for 300 units of market-rate housing, and Berkeley also hopes to add units for students, staff and faculty, DeFreece said. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2026, pending environmental assessments, but project partners are already working to find tenants. The university estimates it could bring in $40 million a year in rent, philanthropy, grants and course fees.

Campus officials began examining areas for potential research collaborations that would build on Berkeley’s existing work with NASA that operates satellites and builds instruments for spacecraft. Areas of focus include how to sustain life in extreme environments such as Mars, protect astronauts from radiation and other health hazards, use 3D printers to manufacture supplies needed in space and, lower in the atmosphere, to develop the automation of electric flying vehicles, said Alexandre Bayen, an associate dean who is developing the project’s academic mission.

Claire Tomlin, chair of Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer science department, said Moffett Field would provide an “outdoor test bed” for research into how to integrate drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles — which are increasingly used to deliver medical supplies, for example – in air traffic control systems. She anticipates greater collaborations in areas such as artificial intelligence, electronics and new materials.

Political issues, such as how to govern business in space and control commercial exploitation, also attract interest.

“We are inventing the future in the new center,” Bayen said.

Such avant-garde initiatives have ignited the imagination of many students. To meet growing interest in the field, UC Berkeley launched an aerospace engineering major last year, attracting 2,000 applicants for 80 spots, an admission rate of 4 percent. The campus plans to hire six new faculty as it expands the program to 250 students, said Panayiotis Papadopoulos, the engineering school’s director of aerospace programs who led the development of the specialization. A new degree in aerospace data science is under consideration.

UC Berkeley, one of the nation’s top universities for training startup founders, has also added an aerospace track to its global entrepreneurship program, called SkyDeck. More than 400 undergraduate students are involved in various aerospace-related clubs that build rockets, research flying vehicles, promote career opportunities and other activities, Papadopoulos said.

Papadopoulos said student interest in space education and careers is “the highest I’ve ever seen in my 37 years in this industry.”

“Students, in many ways, are dreamers,” he said. “They want to do big things. And they see space as truly the final frontier and want to have a stake in it.

These students include Taylor Waddell, a doctoral student specializing in space manufacturing. He’s working with NASA on how to use 3D printers in space to make replacement parts needed for spacecraft, such as nuts and bolts, with a process that works best in weightless environments. More futuristically, he’s also working with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to make cartilage and, hoping to eventually create organs with 3D printers in space, where he says cells reproduce more easily .

Ishita Suresh is a third-year nuclear engineering, electrical engineering and computer science student and helped lead a student-led course, “NewSpace Entrepreneurship,” last year. She said students are familiar with “old space” — dominated by NASA, Lockheed, Boeing and other major players — but less trained in newer, smaller companies working, for example, with satellite imaging and machine learning to identify environmental risks or predict forest fires. She and her team also launched a scholarship program to share space education with local community college students.

Nabavi, meanwhile, is working with her club, SpaceForm, to research and develop radiation shields and “deployable systems” such as solar sails that can fold compactly at launch but deploy into their full form and function in space.

“When students hear about it, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s crazy,'” Suresh said of the new space center. “The next big thing we discover in space could be right here.”



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