U physics department helps NASA look to the stars

by Elena Rozwadowski

For more than 50 years, University physics faculty have been looking to the stars and studying them, said Keith Goetz, associate programs director in the School of Physics and Astronomy.

“NASA itself was invented in 1960, and we’ve been doing space research since 1950,” he said.

So when NASA started talking about sending twin spacecrafts to get the first 3-D images of the sun, Goetz said he jumped at the chance to be a part of it.

The University teamed up with the Paris Conservatory in France and the University of California, Berkeley to build one of four instruments that NASA will launch Wednesday.

The mission, known as the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), will study coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, which are gas explosions that originate from the sun’s outermost layer and sometimes hit the Earth’s magnetosphere.

“We are sort of like weathermen used to be before the space age came along,” said Goetz, the project manager. This mission, he said, will help scientists better understand the behavior of the sun.

“If we understand it, maybe we can predict it,” Goetz said.

Solar explosions

The University-built instrument, called a coronagraph, will monitor the radio noise made by CMEs. Goetz said the device has very sensitive receivers that listen to AM radio-type frequencies.

“It’s a souped-up car radio in a way,” he said.

The coronagraph will track the CMEs’ direction of travel and speed.

NASA project scientist Mike Kaiser said they are particularly interested in the CMEs that hit the Earth because of how they behave when they hit the magnetosphere and orbiting satellites.

One of the more familiar and friendly effects of CMEs are aurora, or colorful lights seen in the night sky in the northern and southern regions of the earth.

“Nobody’s ever died from watching that,” Kaiser said.

But CMEs can also be very destructive. Not only can they knock a satellite out of orbit and reset spacecraft data, they can cause massive power outages on Earth, he said.

They can also be harmful to astronauts traveling in space by exposing them to unsafe levels of radiation.

Kaiser said NASA is not necessarily taking any new measurements, but it is taking them from a different and much closer vantage point.

“If we can predict these kinds of events more accurately, we will be able to take preventative measures when they happen,” he said. These measures would include putting space computers in safe-mode or building shelters where astronauts could go in the event of a CME.

Analyzing the data

Although the device that takes the 3-D images will get most of the attention, the University’s contribution will be the first to turn on, Kaiser said. Data collection could start as soon as Friday.

Physics professor Cynthia Cattell is handling a lot of the data here at the University. She said she has previously worked with data from other satellites built by Goetz.

The best part about her end, she said, is that students can get involved, especially since they are not allowed to participate in building the hardware.

“We are looking at new science,” Cattell said. Students “are looking at a new research project and questions that no one has had the data set to answer.”

She said students are learning how to analyze this type of data, which is a real-world experience they can’t get from a textbook.

So far, there are two undergraduates and one graduate student working on the STEREO project.

Lynn Wilson, a physics graduate student, said he got involved because science is about getting beyond examples and focusing on realistic scenarios.

“Physics is the art of approximation,” he said. “Life isn’t as nice and pretty as a textbook would describe for you, and it’s really neat to see something that you really can’t explain.”

But Wilson said a person doesn’t have to be a physics student to find the STEREO mission interesting.

“At the very least, you get to look at the biggest explosions in the solar system, which is really entertaining for anyone,” he said. “This is something that no one has done before.

“It’s fun to be that confused about something.”