May 6, 2021

Out-of-This-World Research Gets a Philanthropic Boost

Members of the Space Innovation Council support astronomy and planetary science research at Caltech and JPL.

From the early days of space exploration, Caltech has been a pioneer. On Halloween in 1936, Caltech students tested a rocket in Arroyo Seco, a few miles from campus. This marked the beginning of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which gained its current name in 1943 and now is managed by Caltech for NASA.

From missions to Mars to terrestrial observatories that scan the skies for Earth-like planets, scientists and engineers from Caltech and JPL continue to lead space science today. Some of their most ingenious ideas rely on equally ambitious partners: donors who help get lofty endeavors off the ground.

The Space Innovation Council

Caltech’s Space Innovation Council, launched in 2013, exemplifies this alliance between scientists and supporters. Members represent diverse fields, from engineering and academia to business and the arts, united by a passion for discovery and a commitment to advocate for astronomy and planetary science at Caltech and JPL.

Charles Elachi (PhD ’71), JPL director from 2001 to 2016 and now a Caltech professor of electrical engineering and planetary science, emeritus, was instrumental in establishing the group. Today, he is co-chair, joined by entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist Eva Guerrand-Hermѐs.

Council meetings include briefings about leading-edge missions and research. Additionally, through their generous contributions to Break Through: The Caltech Campaign, council members seed investigations that reach from the Moon to Mars, to planets orbiting distant suns.

Rendering of the computer-aided design model of the Lunar Trailblazer flight system in its lunar science observing orbit (Credit: Lockheed Martin Space)

Space Innovation Council Philanthropic Discovery Fund

Created with generous contributions from multiple council members, the Space Innovation Council Philanthropic Discovery Fund offers competitive awards to advance high-risk, high-reward projects that involve collaborations between Caltech and JPL, and to better position these initiatives to attract government grants. Council member and donor Andrew Tisdale, managing director at the London office of Providence Equity, already has witnessed this support return dividends in new discoveries.

“We can very directly see the connection between what we give and what the researchers accomplish. These are people who are at the tops of their fields, who are passionate, articulate, and inspiring. When you can give money that fosters their life’s work, I think that’s an important thing to do with your philanthropy. ”
- Andrew Tisdale

The council set an initial target of $1 million for the fund and already has raised $675,000. Over the long term, the goal is to continue to support at least three projects annually. Funded programs will embody the innovative “think-do” approach of the W. M. Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech, which manages the application review process in behalf of the council. The projects sponsored last year are described below.

Fast-Spinning Binary Stars

  • Project: In 2019, researchers at the Caltech Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory detected twinned white dwarfs whirling around each other at hundreds of kilometers per second. The stars eclipsed each other every 7 minutes, the shortest such period ever recorded. The scientific team is now building on that breakthrough and has already discovered many more short-period systems.
  • Principal investigators: Shri Kulkarni, George Ellery Hale Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science; Tom Prince, Ira S. Bowen Professor of Physics, director and Allen V. C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair of Caltech’s W. M. Keck Institute for Space Studies, and JPL senior research scientist

Quakes on the Moon

  • Project: Scientists at Caltech and JPL are studying how they might gauge seismic activity on the Moon by extending an innovative technique to measure quakes on Earth—using lasers to pick up vibrations in fiber-optic cable. This project could add to the only existing data about lunar shaking (collected during the Apollo missions) and answer unresolved questions about the Moon’s interior.
  • Principal investigator: Zhongwen Zhan, assistant professor of geophysics

Small Satellites, Big Opportunities

  • Project: New infrastructure and student support enable Caltech undergraduates to gain hands-on experience in space exploration by operating small satellites, some about the size of a cereal box. Many such satellites are orbiting Earth, and two have been deployed to Mars. Another, the Caltech-led Lunar Trailblazer, is slated to measure water on the Moon in 2024.
  • Principal investigator: Bethany Ehlmann, professor of planetary science and associate director of the Keck Institute for Space Studies

Night-time shot of Owens Valley Long Wavelength Array antennas with the center of our galaxy in the background (Credit: Gregg Hallinan/Caltech)

Wilf Family Discovery Fund in Space and Planetary Science

Space Innovation Council member Steven Wilf, an associate at Garden Homes Development and a trustee of the Wilf Family Foundation, has been a driving force behind another fund that fuels scientific progress and technological creativity. Established in 2017, the Wilf Family Discovery Fund in Space and Planetary Science provides $100,000 annually over a five-year period to support novel early-stage research. Wilf is committed to advancing projects with the potential to bring about major enhancements of knowledge and has a particular interest in the search for extraterrestrial life in our solar system and beyond.

“There’s a lot of synergy between my curiosity about the search for life outside of Earth and the work going on at Caltech. In the grand scheme of things, the biggest question is arguably, “What is our place in the universe?” Supporting exoplanet research is my avenue to help answer it.”
- Steven Wilf

Two projects backed by the Wilf Family Discovery Fund to date have upgraded facilities that support the hunt for life on other planets.

Radio Signals from Faraway Worlds

  • Project: Enhancements to the Long Wavelength Array, a radio telescope at the Caltech-operated Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO), have made it possible for researchers to study 4,000 planetary systems as far away as 80 light years.
  • Principal investigator: Gregg Hallinan, professor of astronomy and OVRO director

Finding and Characterizing Exoplanets

  • Project: Improvements to the Palomar Radial Velocity Instrument have heightened the ability of a team of scientists from Caltech and JPL to measure the motion of distant stars, one of the first and most powerful techniques to detect exoplanets.
  • Principal investigators: Kerry Vahala (BS ’80, MS ’81, PhD ’85), Ted and Ginger Jenkins Professor of Information Science and Technology and Applied Physics; Stephanie Leifer, JPL technologist

New Answers to the Oldest Questions

Members of the Space Innovation Council are committed to providing immediate, upfront resources that give Caltech and JPL investigators the chance to build bold ideas into robust scientific programs with the potential to attract millions of dollars in federal grants as well as new partners in space exploration.

The belief is that these endeavors, in turn, will shed light on mysteries as old as humankind: Where do we come from? How did our solar system come to be the way it is? How do stars and planets form? And are we alone?