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Dr. William Matthaeus, Unidel professor of physics and astronomy, University of Delaware

Sep 28, 2018 04:40PM ● By Steven Hoffman

How do you begin to learn about an object that is 93 million miles away from Earth?

On Aug. 12, the NASA Parker Solar Probe embarked on what will be a six-year journey to do what mankind has never done before: To nearly touch the Sun. From now until 2024, the Solar Probe will make 33 revolutions around the Sun – from a distance of nearly 4 million miles from its surface – to gather data on solar activity that will lead to our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth.

Dr. William Matthaeus, Unidel professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware, has taken a major role in the development of the Parker Solar Probe. Recently, Newark Life spoke with Dr. Matthaeus to understand more about the Solar Probe, the information it hopes to gather, and to learn about what first attracted him to the mysteries of space.

Q.: Congratulations on the work and you and your colleagues are doing on the Parker Solar Probe. It was launched on Aug. 12 at 3:31 a.m., with the intent to study the corona of the Sun. How is the Solar Probe doing up there so far?

A: Since witnessing the spectacular takeoff that early morning, we've been keeping track of the progress that the Probe has been making. My graduate students and I have been checking its status online, and we've been able to see how many tens of millions of kilometers the craft has progressed in the days after the launch. In the last few days, I have received messages that different instruments on board are being commissioned. They're being brought up one by one, and we're being told how they will be used. There are always little glitches in projects of this size and scope, but that's anticipated. So far, the Solar Probe is moving forward at a pace that will allow us to actually acquire data within a month or so.

The Solar Probe is expected to reach as close as 3.8 million miles from the sun and make 33 passes around the Sun between now and 2024. What do you hope to find?

The science questions are, and have been for a long time, related to finding out why the corona layer of the Sun is as hot as it is, and why it gets hotter the further we move away from it. It's important for us to know more about those questions, because the corona is where solar wind originates, and where the supersonic flow of charged particles come off of the Sun and create the gas and plasma environment of the entire solar system. It drags the magnetic field with it, which protects us on Earth from drastic cosmic rays, but at the same time, the activity of that magnetic field is responsible for the solar energetic particles, which originate at the Sun.

It's a complicated ecosystem out there, and we really don't understand some of the basic principles about how it all works. If we ever want to have space-weather predictions to use for space expeditions, we need to be able to measure that electromagnetic and radiation environment.

We really don't know how these plasma works yet so close to the Sun. We don't know why they're as hot as they are, and we don't know why they're moving as fast as they are, so this mission is to help us find that out.

How did you become involved in the development of the Parker Solar Probe? This is what they call a group project, yes?

There are thousands of people involved, and there are half a dozen instrument suites, and each has its own team of dozens of scientists working on it. My involvement predates this particular version of the mission by two decades. After I got my Ph.D. and did a post-doctoral fellowship in the early 1980s, I began to hear about a solar probe mission that discussed the concept of traveling close to the sun. Actually, this mission was discussed in some form back in the 1950s, even before NASA existed.

I came to the University of Delaware in 1983 as a junior professor, and at that time, I was already interested in a lot of the science questions [related to the study of the Sun], and talked about the hope of someday being able to see this mission happen.

As I became more senior in the field in the early 2000s, I was part of a committee, formed by the National Academy of Sciences, that ranked the Solar Probe as the number-one priority for the coming ten years. After that, things began moving at NASA headquarters, and in 2004, I was asked to be on NASA's science and technology definition team.

Do you see science and technology advancing to the point to where our research of the Sun may get us closer to its surface?

Absolutely. We could get to three or four solar radii right now, but the orbit we would need to go to would only permit a few passes [revolutions] around the Sun. As rocket technology improves, we can get to three or four passes, and maybe we can get to two passes. This is not the last time that we're going to do something like this. We're going to learn things that we don't even know that we don't know. There will be discoveries made on this mission.

How will the discoveries made on this mission ultimately help us on Earth?

Once we understand the basic mechanisms that are going on close to the Sun, we can then begin to predict the space plasma, electromagnetic and radiation environment near Earth. That's important for satellite technology, human exploration of space, and in the establishment of bases that we may have on the Moon or Mars in the distant future. We surely need to know a lot more about the environment out there in order to expand the space exploration that we've been doing for the past 50 years.

How and when did you first become interested in space, astronomy and physics? Take me back to those early days of fascination.

When I was a little kid in the 1950s, maybe 5 or 6 years old, I used to watch “Mr. Wizard” on TV. I used to lay on my stomach in front of the back-and-white set and draw pictures of rocket ships going to different planets. At about the same time Russia launched the Sputnik, the United States declared The International Geophysical Year that announced that the U.S. was going to explore the Earth's upper atmosphere towards space, and attempt to orbit the planet. I was just the right age to become completely enthralled with that. From the time I was 7, I imagined that I would spend my life studying something in space, and I watched every science fiction movie and program that I could find.

As fate would have it, and with some luck, I was able to get the right education, and I ended up doing just that. You're a lucky person when you get to do for a living exactly what you dreamed of doing when you were 7.

Since 2016, you've been the director of NASA's Delaware Space Grant. How is that grant distributed throughout Delaware?

We are in charge of distributing funds for promoting young peoples' participation in undergraduate studies, graduate studies and summer internships in the STEM-related subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. This program helps student research at the University of Delaware, Delaware State, Wesley College, Del Tech and Delaware Technical Community College. Anyone student interested in a STEM subject can apply to us for support. It's very gratifying for me to encourage young people to go in the same path that I personally have gone on myself.

  • Richard L. Gaw



Courtesy photo

Dr. William Matthaeus, Unidel professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Delaware, has taken a major role in the development of the Parker Solar Probe.


Courtesy photo

The Parker Solar Probe, launched in August, is expected to make 33 revolutions around the Sun before the expedition ends in 2024.

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