Article

Philip Chamberlin is a research astrophysicist.

Photograph courtesy Philip Chamberlin

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.”

GEO-CONNECTION

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.

GET INVOLVED

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.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

accuracy

Noun

condition of being exact or correct.

aerospace

Noun

business concerned with the manufacturing and operation of vehicles that fly in and above Earth's atmosphere.

astronomy

Noun

the study of space beyond Earth's atmosphere.

astrophysicist

Noun

person who studies the relationship between matter, energy, motion, and force outside the Earth's atmosphere.

constellation

Noun

group of stars that form a recognizable shape.

data

Plural Noun

(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

engineering

Noun

the art and science of building, maintaining, moving, and demolishing structures.

finance

Verb

to fund or provide money to an organization or individual, usually for a specific purpose.

geography

Noun

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.

interfere

Verb

to meddle or prevent a process from reaching completion.

moon

Noun

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.

orbit

Noun

path of one object around a more massive object.

PhD

Noun

(doctor of philosophy) highest degree offered by most graduate schools.

phenomenon

Noun

an unusual act or occurrence.

physics

Noun

study of the physical processes of the universe, especially the interaction of matter and energy.

planet

Noun

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.

render

Verb

to make, or cause to become.

rocket

Noun

device that moves through the atmosphere by release of expanding gas.

satellite

Noun

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.

star

Noun

large ball of gas and plasma that radiates energy through nuclear fusion, such as the sun.

technology

Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

telescope

Noun

scientific instrument that uses mirrors to view distant objects.

Credits

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Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editor

Kara West
Jeannie Evers

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

National Geographic Program

Wildest Weather in the Solar System

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