By Stuart Thornton
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Having a father who taught geology and astronomy, Phil was introduced to science at a young age. Phil’s father encouraged his interest in astronomy. “He had a telescope that we would take out in the backyard and look at the stars with,” says Phil, who grew up in Colorado, first in Franktown, then in Greeley. “He would show me constellations and tell me stories about constellations and planets and the moons. Him being a science PhD and a teacher, he knew how to probe questions and teach me to think, as well as just to answer all the questions that I had.”
While attending Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana, Phil took his first astronomy class. “In a more formal manner, it pushed me and made me want to go towards astronomy and space,” he says.
Phil later earned a degree in physics from Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana, followed by his master’s and doctorate in aerospace engineering sciences from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“The fact that I’m building stuff that goes into space,” he says. “And I’m looking at data that no one has ever seen before.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
“It’s fairly stressful,” Phil says. “Being an experimental scientist and building things, one little thing goes wrong, and your whole project doesn’t work.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“Geography is how people and cultures adapt and use geology. It’s the way humans and their culture evolves based on the land.”
According to Phil, one of the primary goals of the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) is to learn more about space weather, a solar phenomenon that disrupts geographic tools such as global positioning systems (GPS) and satellites. “If a solar flare goes off, it actually affects the accuracy of GPS,” he says. “It could actually render GPS useless if a large solar flare goes off because of the interference of the radio waves. The radio output from the sun could cause GPS to be useless.”
Phil says NASA scientists use GPS technology. When sending up sounding rockets, which don’t go into orbit, scientists use GPS receivers so they can find the rockets later.
However, Phil and his fellow scientists at Goddard Space Flight Center do not employ GPS to track their satellite. That’s because SDO is in a geosynchronous orbit, which matches the speed of the Earth’s rotation. That means the satellite appears in the same spot in the sky at the same time each day.
SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ASTROPHYSICIST
Phil recommends taking classes in everything from computer programming to finance, in addition to loads of science courses. “The more science you can take in general, the better,” he says.
Phil also suggests joining a school robotics club or rocket club.
Phil says the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, has education and public outreach programs, including Family Science Night. “One night a month, families come in, and they do a science project,” he says. “And they hear from a scientist.” Visit the site for more information.
Phil also encourages people to become a Facebook friend of the Solar Dynamics Observatory. “Just by following this Facebook account,” he says, “you are just bombarded with all sorts of cool tidbits of science.”
Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry accuracy Noun
condition of being exact or correct.
business concerned with the manufacturing and operation of vehicles that fly in and above Earth's atmosphere.
the study of space beyond Earth's atmosphere.
person who studies the relationship between matter, energy, motion, and force outside the Earth's atmosphere.
group of stars that form a recognizable shape.
data Plural Noun
(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.
the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.
to fund or provide money to an organization or individual, usually for a specific purpose.
study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.
Encyclopedic Entry: geography geology Noun
study of the physical history of the Earth, its composition, its structure, and the processes that form and change it.
geosynchronous orbit Noun
orbit that moves at the same speed as the Earth's rotation.
Global Positioning System (GPS) Noun
system of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth.
Goddard Space Flight Center Noun
(established 1959) NASA space research laboratory.
GPS receiver Noun
device that gets radio signals from satellites in orbit above Earth in order to calculate a precise location.
to meddle or prevent a process from reaching completion.
natural satellite of a planet.
Encyclopedic Entry: moon NASA Noun
(acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration) U.S. agency responsible for space research and systems.
path of one object around a more massive object.
(doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.
an unusual act or occurrence.
study of the physical processes of the universe, especially the interaction of matter and energy.
large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.
Encyclopedic Entry: planet radio wave Noun
electromagnetic wave with a wavelength between 1 millimeter and 30,000 meters, or a frequency between 10 kilohertz and 300,000 megahertz.
to make, or cause to become.
device that moves through the atmosphere by release of expanding gas.
object that orbits around something else. Satellites can be natural, like moons, or made by people.
Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) Noun
NASA mission designed to understand the causes of solar variability and its impacts on Earth.
solar flare Noun
explosion in the sun's atmosphere, which releases a burst of energy and charged particles into the solar system.
space weather Noun
changes in the environment outside the Earth's atmosphere, usually influenced by the sun.
large ball of gas and plasma that radiates energy through nuclear fusion, such as the sun.
the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.
scientific instrument that uses mirrors to view distant objects.