Defining the past, propelling the future

A look at Michigan Engineering’s leading role in space and aerospace in the last century. | Medium Read
IMAGE:  Key to graphs. Graphic by Steve Alvey

University of Michigan Engineering helped lead space discovery beyond the telescope and into its defining era. Aerospace engineers from the country’s oldest program have been at the forefront, and currently innovate CubeSat missions and novel space propulsion devices.

Our Space Physics Research Lab and Climate and Space scientists build unique instruments to monitor the Earth’s environment and explore our solar system. Our new M Space Institute responds to society’s expanding use of space, encompassing multiple disciplines to advance our collective innovation.

We will continue to protect our most precious planet, while traveling across the solar system – and beyond.

Sun & Heliosphere

IMAGE:  A Sun graphic with four spacecraft orbiting. Graphic by Steve Alvey.
  • 1993: New Solar and Heliospheric Research Group provides foundation for space weather research
  • 1997: ACE* satellite starts to provide severe solar storm warnings
  • 2016: DSCOVR* satellite continues real-time solar wind monitoring
  • 2018: Parker Solar Probe* launches to discover how solar storms are born near the Sun
  • 2020 (scheduled): Solar Orbiter** will explore how the Sun shapes and controls the heliosphere


IMAGE:  A Mercury graphic with two spacecraft orbiting. Graphic by Steve Alvey.
  • 2015: MESSENGER* reaches Mercury and discovers ice near its poles
  • 2018: BepiColombo** launches, expected to arrive in 2025 when two orbiters will start an in-depth study of the planet and its environment


IMAGE:  A Venus graphic with one spacecraft orbiting. Graphic by Steve Alvey.
  • 2006: Venus Express* launches to probe the planet’s atmosphere


IMAGE:  An Earth graphic with 17 spacecraft orbiting. Graphic by Steve Alvey.
  • 1914: Michigan establishes the first aeronautics degree program
  • 1946: Space Physics Research Laboratory and High Altitude Laboratory founded
  • 1957: “Rocket Panel” meets at Michigan to propose new space agency: NASA
  • 1963-1968: Harm Buning teaches flight and orbital mechanics to all Apollo astronauts
  • 2008 – 2019: Multiple CubeSat missions* explore space weather and develop advanced technologies (RAX-1, RAX-2, MCubed-1, MCubed-2, GRIFEX, CADRE, TBEX-1, TBEX-2, QB50)
  • 2016: Michigan-led CYGNSS* eight-satellite constellation mission launches to monitor hurricane intensity

Fun Fact

University of Michigan has a long list of astronauts among our faculty and alumni base — 22 to be exact.


IMAGE:  A moon graphic with one spacecraft and one space craft lander. Graphic by Steve Alvey.
  • 1971: All-Michigan Apollo 15 crew explores the moon (and establishes an alumni club there)
  • 2009: Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter** identifies sites for future lunar missions


IMAGE:  A Mars graphic with five spacecraft, one lander and three rovers. Graphic by Steve Alvey.
  • 2003: MarsExpress** studies its atmosphere and environment
  • 2004: Spirit** and Opportunity Rovers** characterize Martian rocks and uncover the history of Martian water
  • 2005: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter** starts monitoring water
  • 2007: Phoenix** examines ice cap with robotic arm
  • 2011: Mars Science Laboratory** brings Curiosity Rover* to assess habitability
  • 2013: Maven** launches to study space weather on Mars
  • 2018: MarCO Cubesats** launch to demonstrate new communication technology


IMAGE:  A Jupiter graphic with three spacecrafts orbiting. Graphic by Steve Alvey.
  • 1995: Galileo* reaches Jupiter to discover an ocean under the icy moon Europa
  • 2016: Juno* reaches Jupiter to explore its gravity, magnetic field and atmosphere
  • 2022 (scheduled): Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer* will take a detailed look at the planet and three of its largest moons


IMAGE:  A Saturn graphic with one spacecraft lander orbiting. Graphic by Steve Alvey.
  • 2004: Cassini-Huygens* reaches Saturn, discovering Titan’s liquid methane lakes and gas plumes on Enceladus

Solar system

  • 1977: Voyagers 1 and 2** left Earth over four decades ago to study outer planets, and now continue their exploration beyond our Solar System
  •  2004: Rosetta** launches to study comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, landing in 2014 to take images and sample its nucleus

And beyond

Michigan’s world-leading space research and education has explored the space weather and habitability of planets, including our own, with highly ambitious current and future space missions. Building on a century of history, our alumni are leaders at NASA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and others. Join us as we propel the future.



Zach Robertson
News and Communications Assistant

Michigan Engineering

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