Director Leads U-M Space Institute Into a New Era

Space Institute Director Chris Ruf
Meet the New Director of the University of Michigan Space Institute and Find Out What the Future Holds for Space Research

Founded in 2019, the University of Michigan Space Institute is the central focal point of all space-related research and academic activities at the University of Michigan. The Space Institute empowers the university to advance its world leadership in space by offering partnerships with specialized labs, opportunities to connect through its affiliate program, and funding for innovative space projects.

In 2023, Dr. Chris Ruf took the helm as the new director of the U-M Space Institute. Ruf serves as the principal investigator on NASA’s Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) Mission and teaches at the University of Michigan in the Department of Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering, where he has been a professor for 23 years. We sat down with Ruf to discuss his work, his ideas related to space research, and the future of the U-M Space Institute.

Q. Tell us more about your work in space. Can you tell us about a noteworthy project you have worked on?

A. The project I have worked on the longest is CYGNSS, which started in 2012 and is still ongoing. Scientifically, it was the first mission dedicated to a new type of radar for remote sensing of the Earth. Our radar uses a constellation of GPS navigation satellites as its transmitter, and our satellites provide the radar receivers. The original objective of the mission was measurement of wind speeds in hurricanes, made possible by the roughening of the water by the winds, which alters the reflection of GPS signals. We have successfully achieved this objective, and our wind measurements are being used to improve hurricane forecasting.

Because CYGNSS was the first of its type of mission, we have also developed other uses for GPS reflection radar, including the measurement of moisture below the Earth surface and flood inundation and wetlands under vegetation. These capabilities, and the new science applications they enable, have been a particularly exciting part of the mission.

A second noteworthy aspect of CYGNSS is technological. Because GPS radar receivers are small, low power, and lightweight, they can be flown on a very small satellite. And because small satellites are much cheaper to build and launch, we could afford to fly many (eight!) of them. CYGNSS was the first NASA Earth Science mission to use a constellation of small satellites. It is especially gratifying to see how many other science missions with constellations of small satellites have followed after us.

Q. What inspired you to step into this leadership role as the Director of the U-M Space Institute?

A. I believe there is a huge amount of untapped potential here at U-M that could be realized by forming better connections and collaborations between science and engineering. This is probably true of many disciplines, but space research is the one I know well on both the engineering and the science sides. As Director, I want to help facilitate these connections and collaborations. Successful research outcomes could include space technology research with important new scientific applications, or space science research using more advanced sensors and related technology. Successful educational outcomes could be broader, more multidisciplinary space-related student projects that cut across different departments, colleges and schools.

Q. How would you describe the U-M Space Institute and the work it does?

A. The Space Institute operates in several ways. For major research projects, it supports the definition and planning that typically happens when a proposal is written. For space-related courses, it supports the courses themselves (in particular, our cubesat development courses), and it coordinates new programs, certificates and undergraduate minors. We also regularly (three times per year) solicit proposals from students and faculty requesting funding to support new and interdisciplinary space research projects.

Q. What does the U-M Space Institute have to offer to students, faculty, industry partners or the broader community?

A. In addition to our direct support of new and interdisciplinary space research projects on campus, we also coordinate outreach opportunities for our students with external communities in government, non-profit organizations, and private industry. This includes internships and co-ops off campus, as well as sponsorship of student projects on campus. I encourage any off-campus members of the space research and development community who are interested in working with our students to reach out to me and I can help make those connections.

Q. In order to expand the work of the U-M Space Institute, what would you like to see happen in the coming year?

A. There are a number of existing outreach programs now for our students to work with external members of the space community. Most of these are with government agencies, such as the NASA field centers. I would like to see these opportunities grow and expand, especially into the private sector where there is an increasing number of small and medium-sized companies in the “New Space” ecosystem. These New Space companies need smart, well-trained new hires, and our graduates are looking for exciting opportunities in space. The U-M Space Institute is here to facilitate that connection between these two groups.

Q. What are you most excited about right now in the field of space exploration and space travel?

A. Some of the most exciting new trends in space are the explosive growth in small satellites and miniaturized sensors, for science but also for communication, navigation, and imaging applications. Another exciting trend is the privatization of aspects of space that had traditionally only been conducted by major government agencies and aerospace companies, including lunar exploration and launch services for access to space; and the return of humans to the moon, and eventually, Mars and beyond.

Q. Can you tell us about a few exciting developments in space that will come out of the University of Michigan in the years to come?

A. To name a few, our faculty at the University of Michigan are leading the SunRISE (Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment) mission, in collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is now ready for launch. The mission will study low radio frequency emissions to better understand how the Sun generates intense space weather storms that can be harmful to spacecraft and astronauts. Several faculty have also been selected to work on components of NASA’s flagship mission, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC), which is slated to launch no earlier than 2027. The GDC mission will advance our understanding of Earth’s ionosphere-thermosphere system, improving our ability to quantify and forecast space weather effects both on Earth and in space.

There are also several major new space science mission proposals either in development or in review, and hopefully one or more of them will be selected. Every new mission initiates a wide range of activities, from engineering design and fabrication to science modeling and analysis to operational mission execution. Their impact on U-M can be both wide and deep. Of course, these mission proposals are all competed, so we need to wait (fingers crossed) to see if we are selected. But we have been successful in the past, so I am optimistic.

Q. When you think about the future of space and space research at U-M, is there anything else you’d like to add?

A. The only other thing I’d like to say is that the modern technological world is entering an era of rapid acceleration and change in the way space research and practice is done. We at U-M can and should play a major role in defining and implementing that change, and I feel lucky and honored to be a part of it.