Space Scientists Return to Big Sky for Annual Conference

Event covers full spectrum of space missions and aircraft

13 January 2012

Big Sky, Mont., elevation 2290 meters, is a more appropriate name than many people realize. It has become a place to talk about near and outer space, including the problems of getting there and the science to be conducted once you reach your destination. “It’s proven a good place for that,” says Roark Sandberg, manager of the IEEE Aerospace Conference—“economical enough for government employees to attend, with good transportation and excellent recreation facilities for families.” And the skiing at the Big Sky Resort, where the conference takes place, should be excellent.

The 33-year-old conference is returning to the resort town for the 12th time, from 3 to 10 March. As many as 600 scientists and engineers are expected to take part in more than 175 hours of technical sessions over six days, leavened by 20 hours of conference-sponsored technical networking events. Nearly half the attendees are expected from industry, roughly a quarter from NASA, about a fifth from universities, and the rest from the military. Some 20 to 25 countries will be represented. The conference is sponsored by the IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Society and cosponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Prognostics and Health Management Society.

“The Aerospace Conference is multidisciplinary,” says Richard Mattingly, cochair of the conference. He is manager of program integration and planning for future Mars exploration missions at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif. “The topics range from mission concepts to developing electronic parts for extreme environments, and from concept development to lessons learned in operation—a full spectrum of what’s involved in space missions and, to a more limited extent, in aircraft.”

The sessions include eight plenaries on science and aerospace frontiers, plus tracks on such topics as antenna systems, communication and navigation systems, remote sensing, and spacecraft avionics. Nine panel discussions are on the agenda, dealing with government plans for aerospace, various policies, and issues related to education.

Plenary speakers plan to cover such topics as quantum computing, the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, local weather phenomena induced by air traffic, machine ethics, and an artificial leaf that makes fuel from sunlight. Exhibits from suppliers of 3-D metrology systems and other aerospace hardware, software, and services are expected to be on hand.

For attendees who have preuniversity children interested in aerospace, a concurrent junior engineering and science conference is also scheduled, with one day of presentations preceded by a prep session the day before. Students all the way up through high school can give presentations that describe original ideas (with supportive reasoning and data), experiments, inventions, fieldwork, or reviews summarizing issues relating to science, engineering, or mathematics. The students present their papers in the same venue as the adults, and all attendees are encouraged to see what the students have to say. Participants receive a trophy and a CD of the conference proceedings.

The first abstract accepted this year was from a French high school student, on tide currents in Arcachon Bay in southwest France. Topics presented in prior years by students have included engineering applications of bioluminescence, the aerodynamic evolution of bicycles, space waste, and the potential and problems of skiing on Mars.

“The junior conference encourages families to attend,” says Mary Krikorian, the conference chair. “What better way to engage youth in the sciences, or give them a better understanding of what their parents do at conferences than to give them an opportunity to write and present papers and to meet other students in a stimulating environment.” To avoid missing too much school, students can bring their homework and file it electronically, Krikorian says.

The Big Sky setting, with its variety of lodgings within walking distance of the conference center and each other, “supports easy communication between attendees,” Krikorian says. “Even if you come solo you’re involved in conversations the minute you sit down. You make connections that last a long time, many with people from other countries.”

“We encourage interaction,” Mattingly says, “leaving plenty of time and setting up structures for them to occur.”

Networking events include an icebreaker wine-and-cheese reception, so-called java jams (with coffee, tea, and soft drinks), a reception before the plenary sessions, and a fireside ice cream social where plenary speakers join participants.

“A multidisciplinary conference like the IEEE Aerospace Conference,” Mattingly says, “gives people involved in all different levels of development in aerospace systems many chances to get exposed to advances and issues in others’ disciplines as well as to network with people in their own field.”

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