The institute will bring together scientists and engineers to develop new space-mission concepts and technology. It will also work to provide a framework for researchers from Caltech, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and other universities as well as students and visitors to engage in ongoing discussions about such as, How did the universe begin? What is it made of? What is its ultimate fate? Has life evolved elsewhere? While such brainstorming efforts already occur in the field, they tend to be short-lived and sporadic.
Each year, the institute will adopt at least one new theme to explore through symposia, in-depth studies, and the development of emerging-technology prototypes for future space missions. Three study programs are planned for the first year: new directions in robotic exploration of Mars, large space apertures, and instrumentation for cosmic microwave background observations. Possible future topics include the search for extra-solar planets, new approaches to probing dark energy, and next-generation launch and propulsion systems. After a year-long study phase, there will be a technical follow-up phase lasting one to two years, during which the institute will fund laboratory investigations and technology developments identified as high priorities during the study phase.
"Over the last fifty years, the Caltech campus and JPL have been working together in ways that have helped shape the course of space exploration, with major accomplishments in the areas of planetary exploration, space astronomy, Earth remote sensing, and aerospace engineering," said Tom Prince, who will serve as the director of the institute. "This groundbreaking new grant from the Keck Foundation will help open a new chapter in this relationship by establishing an institute devoted to revolutionary advances in space science and engineering. The institute will bring together the best talent from JPL, the campus, and the wider community to create the innovative new approaches and techniques that will influence the course of space exploration for decades to come."