National Engineering Association Honors UCF’s Space Dirt Expert

By: Zenaida Gonzalez Kotala on

UCF Pegasus Professor of Physics Dan Britt became the second UCF space researcher in university history to earn one of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ most prestigious awards for work that makes a difference in space exploration. Florida Space Institute planetary scientists Phil Metzger earned the recognition in 2018.

Britt accepted the honor during the 2022 ASCE Earth & Space Conference held in Denver late last month. The professor says the award reflected the work of all the people who are part of UCF’s Exolith Lab. The lab produces extraterrestrial regolith that mimics the dirt found on Mars, the moon, and asteroids. Last year the lab-produced and shipped about 38 tons of regolith to researchers around the world working on equipment and projects to establish a sustainable presence beyond Earth. NASA, private commercial space companies, universities, and even K-12 schools use the material for research.

“The award is really for all the hard and smart work by the UCF students that actually run the Exolith Lab and have made it the best in the world,” Britt says.

The Aerospace Division’s Outstanding Technical Contribution Award is presented in recognition of distinguished achievements in aerospace engineering that are applicable to any branch of civil engineering.

“Recipients are those who have contributed substantially to advancing the state of the art in aerospace engineering, sciences and technology, and space exploration and construction by either a single outstanding publication, invention or discovery, or have a record of sustained excellence in technical contributions,” says Lindsay O’Leary ’06, the director of Technical Advancement American Society of Civil Engineers who studied civil engineering at UCF.

Britt was selected in 2020, but because of the pandemic, the conference was held virtually that year. The conference is held biannually and is part of the International Conference on Engineering, Science, Construction, and Operations in Challenging Environments. So, Britt was able to collect the award this year.

“The contributions of these outstanding individuals bring us one step closer to lunar and Martian habitation, as we develop engineering structures for aerospace environments and terrestrial applications subject to extreme environmental conditions,” O’Leary said in an email.

Britt has a long history of excellence. He’s been part of four NASA missions — Mars Pathfinder and Deep Space 1, the New Horizons Mission Science Team for the flyby of the Kuiper Belt asteroid 2014 MU69, and the Lucy Mission Science Team for a series of flybys of asteroids near Jupiter. He was the project manager for the camera on Mars Pathfinder and has built hardware for all the NASA Mars landers.

His work is funded by NASA and includes studying the physical properties and mineralogy of asteroids, comets, the moon, and Mars to help keep astronauts safe and their vehicles functioning when traveling to other planets.

He is director of the Center for Lunar and Asteroid Surface Science (CLASS), a node of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI). He has served as the chair of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society and the Planetary Geology Division of the Geological Society of America. He holds multiple degrees including economics and a PhD in geology from Brown University.

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