Space Rocks!
UNH plasma physicists and students want to know how the universe works

Space scientists pictured are (clockwise from lower left) Amitava Bhattacharjee, Jim Connell, Jim Ryan, Lynn Kistler, Terry Forbes, Eberhard Möbius and Roy Torbert. Illustration by Bill Cigliano.

In a wooden hut atop the 6,288-foot peak of New Hampshire's Mount Washington, three banks of tubes, each one an inch in diameter and three feet long, are surrounded by layers of lead and paraffin. Inside, the small gas-filled brass tubes of the neutron detector spark briefly as they detect a cosmic ray entering the Earth's atmosphere.

Fifty years ago, the late UNH physics professor John "Jack" Lockwood built this detector and drove up Mount Washington in an open-roof Jeep to install it. And ever since, it has been steadily and reliably transmitting data on cosmic rays—charged particles from outer space—back to scientists at UNH.

Approximately 445,300,000 miles away, on the far side of the Sun, the Ulysses spacecraft is heading toward its fly-by of Jupiter. It, too, is collecting data and sending it back to UNH. It also has proved reliable and steady: This is the third time the plucky satellite has made the trip since it was launched in 1990. Six other NASA satellites with UNH experiments aboard are also in orbit, all beaming back a wealth of valuable data.

When he created the Mount Washington detector in 1955, Lockwood probably had no idea that it would be the start of a space science program now noted worldwide. "When the U.S. had the capability to put a satellite in orbit," says Berrien Moore III, director of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space, "we had the ability to put instrumentation on that satellite." During the past half-century, UNH has been a part of nearly 30 NASA missions, including a dozen in the 1990s alone. Currently, 27 faculty members, 10 research scientists, 25 engineers and dozens of undergraduate and graduate students study space weather, solar flares, cosmic rays and the workings of plasma.

What do they hope to learn? Nothing less than how the universe works. Talk to some of UNH's space scientists for a while and you begin to acquire a different view of mankind's preoccupation with Earth. It turns out it's a big place out there. What we normally think of as space—planets, moons, stars, comets, supernovas—is less than 1 percent of the universe. All the rest is a new, almost entirely unexplored frontier.

Space physics is a young field because until recently, humans were earth-bound. That began to change after Robert Goddard launched the world's first liquid-fueled rocket in 1926, and by the 1960s, launch vehicles were available to put experiments both in the Earth's upper atmosphere and in deep space. The data these instruments collect will not only help scientists explain some of the most fundamental questions of physics but may help to solve some of our most pressing problems, including a source of cheap, clean energy.

Beyond Plasma TVs

Ask most people to define the word plasma, and they'll probably mention blood transfusions or a kind of TV screen. To space scientists, plasma means only one thing: the fourth state of matter. Plasmas, which constitute almost all of space, are tricky and unpredictable. They can behave like fluids but they exhibit bizarre, hard-to-understand behaviors.

To better understand plasmas in general and a strange, little-understood phenomenon called "reconnection" in particular, space physicist Roy Torbert, director of UNH's Space Science Center, and his team members will be building four identical instruments for NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission. The $38 million grant—the biggest single grant ever awarded at UNH—is part of a huge, $400-million international project to put four satellites in the magnetosphere, where space meets the Earth's ionosphere.

The four satellites, scheduled for launch in 2013, will fly together in a tightly coordinated formation to take measurements of what happens when the Earth's magnetic field is hit by the highly charged particles—called the solar wind—that stream out from the Sun. One of the goals of the project is to unravel the hows and whys of reconnection.

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