Space reader

Space reader

Understanding the conditions in space is vital for future space missions to Jupiter and beyond
July 6, 2009
Physicist Bill McConkey, (at left) post-doctoral

Physicist Bill McConkey, (at left) post-doctoral fellow Stephen Brotton, and student Amanda DiCarlo examine the vacuum system.
Stephen Fields

(Article courtesy of the University of Windsor)

Bill McConkey probably won’t be around to see the day when humans are finally able to travel tremendous stretches through outer space to distant planets such as Jupiter. When they do make that journey, however, they’ll owe a significant debt of gratitude to a scientist who has devoted his vast intellectual ability to better our understanding of the atmospheres of far-off spheres to pave the way for future space explorations.

McConkey, a world-renowned physicist and professor emeritus at the University of Windsor, studies data transmitted back from unmanned spacecraft in order to understand the “space weather” that occurs around the various planets in our solar system.

“We’re just trying to help make sense of what the spacecraft see,” says the soft-spoken scientist, who was named to the Order of Ontario in 2008 and is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

A regular collaborator with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, McConkey is attempting to simulate how energy is transferred in Jupiter’s atmosphere and the surrounding space environment. Io, one of Jupiter’s 63 moons, spews sulphurous gases from active volcanoes into the atmosphere, which gives off energy and generates sulphuric acid on Europa, a neighbouring moon. Electrons from Jupiter’s plasma torus, the cloud of ionized gas that encircles the planet, hit the sulphur atoms and excite them, causing them to emit energy in the form of light.

Back in McConkey’s lab, his students inject various gases that include sulphur into a complex experimental vacuum system, hit them with an electron beam and examine the light that’s emitted by splitting it into its various wavelengths.

Understanding that energy-transfer process is important for space exploration, but it’s necessary for understanding our own atmosphere too, says Charles Malone, a former PhD student of McConkey’s who began working at the NASA lab in Pasadena after he graduated in 2003.

Part of NASA’s research goals, says Malone, is to understand the sun’s effects on the solar system, as well as the fundamental physical processes of outer planetary atmospheres in order to predict the extreme and dynamic conditions in space. Data and models from his lab are used to interpret observations from spacecraft such as the Voyager, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Galileo and Cassini missions.

“It’s a multi-faceted approach to understanding how the solar system works,” explains Malone. “How energy is being dumped in the atmosphere affects a lot of things. Satellites can be knocked out of commission, and power outages can result. Even though these things seem out of reach for the average layperson, they can have profound effects on people, so it definitely relates to our own world. The northern lights are a fantastic visual example of these atmospheric interactions.”

It was while he was working as an undergraduate with his mentor at the University of Windsor, recalls Malone, that it occurred to him that finding employment someday with the space agency wasn’t such a far-fetched idea.

“He was a fantastic influence,” he says of McConkey. “He was a great role model. He has a certain way about him that just lends itself to success. He always had a great ability to put things into perspective.”

The ever humble McConkey says his work is just a small portion of a broader attempt to advance the understanding of our universe, but not an insignificant one.

“Our contribution is a tiny component of the larger picture,” he says, “but every little bit counts.”