Montana State University

Mountains and Minds


Star Power October 15, 2010 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 10/15/10

Since former astronaut Loren Acton landed at MSU, the Solar Physics Program has had 'The Right Stuff'
Wearing the same NASA jumpsuit he wore 25 years ago in space, Loren Acton sat in the back of the church, waiting for his turn in the program.

A boy turned around in his chair and waved at him. A girl stopped by for a hug. The woman sitting next to Acton shook his hand and told him how excited her children--one of them a girl named Lauren--had been to meet a real live astronaut at Bozeman United Methodist Church's Vacation Bible School. The theme for the week was "Galactic Blast," and Acton, Bozeman's very own astronaut, was the mascot.

For five mornings, Acton enthusiastically fielded questions, including if his ears popped when he was launched into space or if he was scared during his eight days on Spacelab 2, the eighth flight of the Challenger. Acton talked about throwing dried apricots in weightlessness and getting spooked when the spacecraft became eerily silent. One child wanted to know if Acton still worked as an astronaut at age 74.

Just a few days earlier, Acton sat in another meeting room, this one with a different audience, but Acton had no less star power. Montana State University hosted a meeting of solar scientists from Japan and the United States to discuss issues and findings related to telescopes on the Hinode spacecraft. Hinode was launched in September 2006 to explore the sun's magnetic fields and better understand the mechanisms that power the solar atmosphere and drive solar eruptions. The mission is led by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency in collaboration with NASA, the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the European Space Agency. MSU is one of the U.S. partners, and as an MSU research professor of physics, founder of the MSU Solar Physics Group and long-time participant with other MSU researchers in national and international solar missions, Acton participated in the meeting.

The scientists who converged at MSU were just as appreciative of Acton as the children who questioned him about his experiences as an astronaut. Some of the researchers shared memories of making dinner reservations in Acton's name so they'd be sure to get a table. Others reflected on Acton's role in making MSU a powerhouse in solar physics.

"He's the grand old man," said Ed DeLuca of Acton.

DeLuca is an astrophysicist with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and a leader on two solar missions that involve MSU. He is coinvestigator for the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly on the Solar Dynamics Observatory and principal investigator of the X-Ray Telescope on Hinode.

"We have had great success with MSU," DeLuca said. "We have collaborated with MSU on a variety of projects, but particularly the XRT (the X-ray Telescope on Hinode). They are the prime subcontractor for us."

He added that the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University and the University of New Hampshire all produce graduate students in solar physics, but MSU produces the bulk of them. One of MSU's graduate students, in fact, would join DeLuca in 2010 at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Andres Munoz received his Ph.D. in solar physics in 2010.

"There was no solar physics until Loren Acton came here," said Mark Weber of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, where he is project manager for the X-Ray Telescope on Hinode and project scientist for the AIA on the Solar Dynamics Observatory. That observatory, launched in February 2010, is designed to help scientists understand the sun's influence on the Earth and the space near Earth by studying the solar atmosphere in many wavelengths simultaneously. Weber was the second Ph.D. student to join MSU's Solar Physics Group before he received his doctorate in 1999.

"Bish" Ishibashi, associate professor of astrophysics at Nagoya University in Japan, said MSU is one of the best institutions in the world for studying solar X-ray and solar magnetic fields.

David McKenzie, research professor at MSU, said the Solar Physics Group is prominent because its members don't just study one part of the sun. They delve deep into the interior to learn about its dynamics. They examine the surface to learn how the magnetic fields get pushed around by dense plasma. They look at the area just above the surface--the chromosphere. They study the area above that to understand solar flares and magnetic fields, and then go even farther up to understand how solar wind and space weather interact with the Earth's magnetic field.

Tools include everything from paper and pen to images from solar observatories like the Solar Dynamics Observatory, McKenzie said. The solar physicists also use computer models, equations and spectral analysis. Undergraduate students from Montana and all over the world come to MSU to analyze data from solar missions and conduct related research. Montana high school students conduct solar research projects by teaming up with members of the MSU Solar Physics Group.

"This really is a fun field with great opportunities and wonderful puzzles to solve," McKenzie said. "We are happy to share it with everybody."

MSU's international reputation for solar physics is linked to Acton's Montana roots.

Acton began his journey into space and beyond as a ranch kid with a curious mind. Born in Lewistown, he attended junior high and high school in Billings and college at MSU in Bozeman. He had no specific career in mind, but planned to enroll in mechanical engineering because it seemed like a natural fit, he said. He enjoyed taking things apart, figuring out how they worked and trying to make them work better.

He switched majors, however, after visiting his oldest brother.

"Engineering is good, but why don't you take physics? It's harder," his brother suggested.
Acton took that advice, and he's still happy he did.

"The more you learn, the harder things you do, the better chance you have of doing what you really want to do," he said. "That philosophy turned me into a scientist instead of an engineer and that's what took me into space."

Acton received his bachelor's degree in physics in 1959 from MSU, a doctorate in physics in 1965 from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and an honorary doctorate in physics from MSU in 1988. He worked 29 years at Lockheed Martin in Palo Alto, Calif. During that time he flew on a NASA mission as a Lockheed employee.

"I found out one day while serving on a study committee of the National Academy of Sciences that it was the plan for NASA to send scientists into space on the space shuttle," Acton said. "I thought, 'Wow. I could do that.'"


Acton was selected in 1978 to fly on the shuttle, but training and shuttle delays meant it was seven years before he actually flew. Acton finally left the launch pad on the morning of July 29, 1985. It was the 19th flight for the shuttle and the 50th flight of a U.S. space mission.

"Five minutes after lift-off, one of our main engines shut down," Acton said. "We only have three engines. When one of them stops, what happens? Go home? Find a place to land? It could take years before we get ready again. I was afraid that my wife, Evelyn, wouldn't put up with more years of me being an astronaut."

The flight continued, and after the crew dumped 1,000 pounds of fuel it achieved an orbit 50 miles lower than planned. As payload specialist on a seven-man crew, Acton spent the next eight days overseeing scientific experiments.

"My emotions were more sensitive than normal," he recalled. "When I would speak to people on the ground, I had to be careful not to say things other than work stuff. Otherwise, I would choke up. I have no reason to know why except it was a pretty intense experience."

Halfway through the flight, one of the other astronauts reminded Acton that he was in space and maybe he should look out the window and experience it. When he did, Acton discovered that, "This is the most amazing planet because of oceans and the continents, all the interesting weather patterns. It's a very colorful place compared to the other planets. It really is a super-marvelous place to live."

Members of the MSU Solar Physics Group have distinguished themselves with national and international awards recognizing their scholarship. Read more

The experiments he oversaw were also impressive. The solar experiments alone produced a great deal of new understanding about how the gases that flow or winds that blow in the solar atmosphere influence the structure of the sun's magnetic field.

Another experiment dealt "pretty accurately" with the abundance of helium in the sun's corona, the outer atmosphere of the sun, Acton said. It showed that the corona was approximately 10 percent helium, a finding predicted by the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe.

Acton landed on the huge dry lake bed at Dryden Flight Center in California, then returned to work at Lockheed Martin. Eight years later, he qualified for early retirement, but he wasn't ready to leave the world of solar physics. Since he still had family in Montana, and his wife, Evelyn--whom he met at MSU--had "bushels" of relatives around Gallatin Valley, he decided to see if he could move his research to MSU.

"I called Bob Swenson (then vice president of research, creativity and technology transfer at MSU) and said, 'Hey, Bob, if I move back to Montana and bring my own support, can you find me a desk?'" Acton said.

Swenson still remembers that day. "It was a wonderful opportunity to have somebody walk in the door and say, 'I'd like to move back home. Lockheed and NASA are willing to move part of my program.'"

Acton got the go-ahead, and returned to MSU in 1993. His arrival launched the university into the solar physics sphere.

Now housed in the Engineering and Physical Sciences building, MSU Solar Physics has about 30 members, counting faculty and graduate students. Alumni number about 25. After just 17 years, with no designated director for the solar group, MSU was one of the top universities in the world for producing graduate students in solar physics. It is internationally renowned for the quality and diversity of its research. Members continue to win spots on national and international solar missions, such as Yohkoh, SOHO, RHESSI, TRACE, Hinode and the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

"We went from having no program at all in solar physics to being one of the best in the United States, doing all kinds of interesting and exciting things," Swenson said.

A significant moment in how far MSU has come in solar physics came Feb. 9, 2010 when MSU students, faculty and staff gathered around the flat screen TVs in Studio 1080, located in the lobby of the EPS Building, and waited for the countdown to watch a rocket carry the Solar Dynamics Observatory into space.

MSU researchers had spent up to five years on the mission and said the observatory was the most advanced spacecraft ever designed to study the sun and its behavior.

McKenzie and MSU research professor Piet Martens --with partners at the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory and the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics--designed and calibrated four telescopes for the observatory. The telescopes together make up the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly. MSU graduate student Jason Scott helped design and test the software that operates the cameras on the telescopes. Graduate student Munoz wrote the programs that would carry out the simulations of solar magnetic fields that are featured on the Solar Dynamics Observatory Web site and being tested with SDO observations.

High winds and other factors delayed the launch for one day, then two. By that time, the crowd had scattered. The speeches were done, and the celebratory cake was long eaten. But finally on Feb. 11, 2010 -- after several years of planning, designing, building and testing--the Solar Dynamics Observatory roared into space.

Two months later, an MSU group gathered again--this time for a NASA press conference showing initial images from the observatory. Watching a live feed from Washington, D.C., they saw plasma on the sun erupting at one million mph and solar flares dancing across the screens. NASA officials and MSU researchers raved about the images, saying they were so clear that they would make it easier to test old theories and make new discoveries. The images showed the entire sun continuously instead of a portion of it part of the time, like previous solar missions.


Scientists said the images would help them understand the physics behind the activity of the sun's corona, which drives space weather. The ultimate goal is to use the information to develop advanced forecasting tools. Solar storms and space weather can interfere with satellite operations, cell phone towers and other communications systems on Earth. Martens said MSU's involvement advances science, and also creates opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students to become involved in research.

The sheer volume of images was so overwhelming that McKenzie said, "No team of humans or grad students chained to a desk can look at all of them in a reliable way."

Fortunately, Martens was already heading an international team to develop computer software to automatically manage the images, create movies of solar events and post those images and movies online. NASA had selected the team in open competition and awarded a $4 million grant for the work.

The effort brought to mind a similar challenge in 2000, Martens said. To handle an exponential increase in solar physics data, the Solar Physics Group through Martens--with the National Solar Observatory, Stanford University and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center--created the Virtual Solar Observatory. Such observatories are now everywhere in astronomy and geophysics, but the VSO was one of the first, Martens said. It created easy on-line access to all solar images that are available in electronic form.

Acton didn't plan to start a solar research group at MSU. He said he came back to MSU with enough financial support for himself, a postdoctoral researcher and one or two graduate students.

"That's all I had in mind," he said. "But one thing led to another. Before I knew it, we had a group."

With "tremendous support" from university and physics department administrators, Acton brought in David Alexander as a postdoctoral researcher and Brian Handy and Mark Weber as graduate students. From there, he added Dana Longcope as the group's first tenure-track faculty member, David McKenzie and Charles Kankelborg as postdoctoral researchers and Piet Martens and Richard Canfield as research professors.

When a second tenure-track faculty position opened, Kankelborg took that position, and the Solar Physics Group continued to grow.

"It's one of the larger and most productive solar groups in the country, if not the world, which I find quite remarkable," Acton said.

Once he realized that MSU was "a great place to do science," Acton said he told himself, "Gee, we need to have the capability of building space hardware."

That led to the 2000 establishment of MSU's Space Science and Engineering Laboratory under the direction of David Klumpar. In the past decade, students in the SSEL have not only produced space hardware, but they have built satellites and sent experiments into the Earth's upper atmosphere on research balloons.

In one project that spanned several years, approximately 125 undergraduate students built a small research satellite to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first successful U.S. satellite. The "Explorer-1 [Prime]" was launched March 4, 2011 on a NASA rocket, but the rocket failed to place the satellite in orbit. It was the first time that an MSU satellite was launched from the U.S., Klumpar said. MSU's satellite was one of three university-built satellites chosen to accompany the NASA mission.

"It's a historically huge moment," Klumpar said of the satellite's selection for the mission.

MSU graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and research scientists have the opportunity to remotely operate instruments on solar missions, such as TRACE and the X-ray Telescope on Hinode. Although TRACE, or the Transition Region and Coronal Explorer, ended operations in 2010, the opportunity to operate solar instruments attracts graduate students to MSU. It's a selling point on their résumés.

Jonathan Cirtain, for one, said he applied to several different graduate schools, but decided to attend MSU after Martens told him he would have the opportunity to operate TRACE.

"It was an opportunity I don't think I would have had if I would have gone to other graduate schools in astronomy," Cirtain said.

He added that, "The Solar Physics Group (at MSU) is one of the best in the world. Having been a part of it, it opened up a number of opportunities for me."

While earning his Ph.D. at MSU, Cirtain won a Graduate Student Research Fellowship to work at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics on the X-Ray Telescope being built for Hinode. He received his doctorate in 2005. Two years later, he received the Young Scientist Award at a meeting of the International Association of Geomagnetism and Aeronomy/International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics in Italy. He is now at the Marshall Space Flight Center and the project scientist for Hinode.

"I'm not much for course work. I can take it or leave it," Cirtain said. "But my advisers and the experience I had in solar physics (at MSU) was fantastic. I wouldn't trade going any other place or doing anything different here."

Acton said he might think about retiring again if the MSU Solar Physics Group succeeds in its next major goal--bringing the headquarters for the National Solar Observatory to Bozeman. The NSO headquarters will manage the operations of the new Advanced Technology Solar Telescope under construction in Maui, Hawaii. The headquarters are currently split between Sacramento Peak, N.M., and Tucson, Ariz. Proposals for a new home at a single site were due to the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) in late 2010. AURA is a consortium that operates world-class astronomical observatories for the National Science Foundation.

Pondering the reasons for the MSU Solar Physics Group's success, Acton said it's partly because many of its projects grew out of the lab that he helped set up at Lockheed.

"One of the real advantages of my 29 years at that institution was we had excellent engineers as well as excellent scientists all in the same group," Acton said. "We could propose these space experiments and build them in-house."

MSU built on that base and provided an ideal environment for the Solar Physics Group to thrive, he said.

"It has been a really, really nice time to be part of Montana State," Acton said. "I consider this to be the best time of my life because it has been such a supportive and encouraging and enthusiastic place. The people in Montana Hall, instead of pointing out all the reasons why it's difficult to do a thing, express enthusiasm and turn you loose.

"As an old goat looking back, I'm pretty gratified," he said.