“To Boldly Go...”
U of L in the Final Frontier
By Denise Fitzpatrick and Kevin Rayburn
At the beginning of this year, President George W. Bush announced a new era in space exploration.
The plan involves returning an American to the moon by 2015 followed soon after by a manned mission to Earth’s nearest planet, Mars.
“We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: Human beings are headed into the cosmos,” the president said on Jan. 14.
Less than two months after the announcement, Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Scott Hubbard, director of the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) Ames Research Center inCalifornia, met in Frankfort to discuss a partnership between NASA and the state to developnew technologies to help bolster the moon/Mars initiative.
“Kentucky’s colleges and universities and innovation-driven companies are in a position tocontribute and participate in important aspects of this initiative,” Hubbard said.
Indeed, U of L scientists have been working with NASA and conducting other research related tospace for decades. According to NASA, U of L received nearly $3 million in NASA contracts in 2003.And with the announcement of the new NASA/Kentucky partnership, that figure is expected to rise.
From medicine to the arts and sciences to engineering, U of L has its eyes on the stars.
In This Section
Dynamics of Dowling
Out of Gravity
Eyes on Mars
Dynamics of Dowling
Speed School Prof Inspires Passion for All Things Space
by Denise Fitzpatrick
The year was 1969. Timothy Dowling, a mechanical engineer who now directs the University of Louisville’s Comparative Planetology Laboratory in the J.B. Speed School of Engineering, had just finished second grade.
The 7-year-old Dowling was flying home to Sacramento from a summer visit with his grandparents in Boston when something he heard on the airplane changed his life forever.
“The pilot came onto the public address system and told us he was making an important announcement,” Dowling recalls. “Then he said ‘The Eagle has landed.’ People on the plane were cheering because we had landed on the moon. I’ll never forget it.”
Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s small step from the Apollo 11 spacecraft onto the lunar surface was the first step for Dowling and launched a lifelong fascination with exploring the planets.
By the time he was a teenager he was totally hooked on space.
As a high school junior, Dowling was shopping in the grocery store when he noticed a full-color photograph of the planet Jupiter on the cover of Time magazine. He stopped in his tracks.
“You could see incredible detail in the photo—Jupiter’s red spot, the storms, everything. I just stood there staring at it. I couldn’t look away. That’s when I knew I was going to spend my life studying the planets.”
The photo was one of the first sent back by Voyager, a NASA mission launched in 1977 to explore the nether regions of space. The Voyager 1 and 2 probes took more than 33,000 pictures of Jupiter and its moons before continuing past the outer planets in the solar system. The probes are now approaching the edge of interstellar space.
Today Dowling, who holds a Ph.D. in planetary science from the California Institute of Technology, is considered a leading authority on planetary atmospheres. He did post-doctoral work at Cornell University and taught at MIT before joining U of L seven years ago.
His “Dynamics of Jovian Atmospheres,” which appeared in the Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics in 1995, is regarded as a seminal work. Experts in his field also often cite the research he did in the late 1990s creating planetary atmosphere models.
A reviewer for NASA’s Planetary Atmospheres Program for well over a decade, Dowling is still investigating the composition and behavior of the gases that wrap themselves around the planets like mysterious blankets.
He has received more than $1 million in NASA funding for an ongoing study—General Circulation of Planetary Atmospheres—he began 12 years ago. In another three-year NASA project funded with a $148,000 grant, he is processing planetary data using a supercomputer that he and his graduate students built all by themselves.
Dowling just received a $171,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a third study comparing the atmospheres of Venus and the Saturn moon Titan.
In his spare time, he closely follows missions such as NASA’s Mars Rover project and Cassini-Huygens. The latter, a four-year project cosponsored by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, is yielding major new insight into Saturn,its rings and its 31 known moons.
Dowling has become so familiar with Cassini that when he discusses the Titan probe being used in the mission he sounds as though he’s talking about his new car.
“The probe has cameras and it can float, which is a good thing because we think Titan has lakes of ethane,” he explains.
Dowling says as soon as the data from Cassini becomes available, scientists will compare it with the data previously gathered by Voyager. They then will try to put all of the pieces together to better understand the atmosphere of Saturn and its moons.
Despite the highly technical nature of his work, Dowling has a flair for bringing information about his research down to Earth for those who aren’t professional scientists. In fact, the only thing that seems to rival his passion for planetary science is his penchant for getting people as excited about it as he is.
When he talks with “plain folks” about the planets he invariably seeks common ground, dropping the scientific jargon in favor of layman-friendly language. That’s why Dowling, who carries in his head a precise chemical breakdown of the gaseous envelope surrounding every known extraterrestrial body, often refers to Mars simply as “cold desert” or explains that Venus is “hot as a self-cleaning oven.”
He also is quick to point out that planetary research holds great promise for solving problems a lot closer to home.
For example, the atmospheric data scientists have gathered in recent years from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—planets commonly known as the “gas giants”—may someday help scientists deal with pollution and weather problems on earth, he notes.
“Astronomers have watched the Great Red Spot of Jupiter for three centuries, but only recently did we learn that it’s basically a very stubborn high-pressure center. Basically, it’s the same weather pattern that causes droughts on our own planet. Studying Jupiter’s spot might help us understand prolonged dry spells on Earth.”
Dowling is extremely motivated, and it comes through to his students, says Csaba Palotai, a NASA outreach ambassador who came to U of L in 2002 to pursue his Ph.D. under Dowling’s tutelage.
Three years ago Palotai, a Budapest native living in Cincinnati, sought a graduate assistantship through a written proposal he sent to schools across the United States. Most responded with a stock brochure in the mail three weeks later.
Dowling, however, sent him a long personal e-mail the very next day.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Palotai says. “He sent me a two-page note telling me all about his program at U of L. When I came here to meet him I knew this was where I wanted to be. He’s the main reason I’m here.”
Dowling’s unabashed, practically childlike enthusiasm for the workings of the universe brings to mind astronomer Carl Sagan, the late host of the landmark television series Cosmos. The 20-year-old series, seen on PBS by an estimated 600 million viewers in 60 countries, is generally recognized as the most popular program about space ever produced.
Indeed, Dowling could be following in Sagan’s footsteps. Not long ago he served as a consultant for Planet Storm, a two-hour Discovery Channel documentary about Jupiter seen by millions of people in the United States and Canada.
This year he pulled off quite a coup by drawing an international meeting of astronomers to Louisville, beating out fierce competition from Washington, D.C., Seattle and even Pasadena, Calif., the home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Because of his efforts, some 700 planetary scientists will converge on the Kentucky International Convention Center Nov. 8—12 for the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences.
Dowling is trying to get the word out about a public lecture to be given by NASA’s top Cassini project scientist and his European counterpart from 6 to 8 p.m. on the first day of the event.
“NASA has never been to Louisville, so we’re thrilled about it. The lecture is open to everyone, not just scientists,” he adds.
As a researcher who excels at communicating about his trade, Dowling couldn’t be happier about the chance to draw the masses closer to the world of space exploration.
“It will be lots of fun,” he explains.
Out of Gravity
Why Do Astronauts Weaken?
By Kevin Rayburn
When a space shuttle lands safely, it would seem that the risks to its astronauts are over.
Yet many emergency scenarios could take place on the ground. A breach in the protective tiles could overheat the cabin. A fire or another dangerous event could occur.
“And it would take 45 minutes for the shuttle crew to be able to stand up and get out,” says Keith Sharp, associate professor of mechanical engineering at U of L’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering.
That’s because extended space flight causes astronauts to develop a condition called “postflight orthostatic intolerance.”
It basically means, Sharp says, “that you’ve been out of gravity for so long you can’t tolerate standing up. It’s probably the greatest cardiovascular problem NASA has.”
Sharp currently is using a four-year NASA grant of nearly $500,000 to study this problem. His collaborator is Charles Knapp, a professor and director of the center for biomedical engineering at the University of Kentucky.
How the circulatory system works during space flight is a focus of Sharp’s research. To better understand this process, he is developing a computer model that will simulate how blood flows in the capillaries and how it is lost during weightlessness.
“We want to develop a computer model that simulates an astronaut’s cardiovascular system,” Sharp says.
In zero-gravity conditions, the capillaries that carry the blood become more permeable, or leaky, and fluid can seep into other parts of the body.
“You lose blood in space—about a liter of blood volume, so you become volume depleted,” Sharp says. That blood decrease causes less blood to get to organs and the brain.
“For astronauts who are standing for the first time after returning from space it means a lack of sufficient blood being pumped to the brain,” he adds. “Brain cells are not getting enough oxygen. It’s not that the muscles lose strength, it’s that the brain is not signaling the muscles to keep the astronaut standing.
“In effect, if you lose your brain, you lose your balance.”
Sharp’s model will allow him to study a range of circulating fluid volumes in various conditions.
“We want to know why postflight orthostatic intolerance occurs. There is more than one hypothesis and we are investigating this one.”
In the mid-1990s, Sharp conducted research aboard the so-called “vomit comet,” NASA’s KC-135 zero-gravity research plane. During the up-and-down flights that create temporary weightlessness, Sharp studied a hydraulic cardiovascular system model.
“Our new project is a computer model version of that study,” he says.
Sharp says he took about 20 flights on the nausea-inducing plane.
“I usually got sick—but it was for the good of science.”
Eyes on Mars
Physics Alumni Designed Digital Cameras on Mars Rover
The world can thank U of L alumnus Mark Wadsworth for the amazing photos transmitted back from NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Mission. The physics graduate who earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at U of L in the early 1980s designed the electronic film that captures the images.
The imaging device created by Wadsworth for the two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, actually has several uses. Not only does it take photos, it provides “the digital eyeballs that allow the rovers to navigate the planet’s surface,” says Wadsworth, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “I essentially designed the rovers’ eyes.”
And what those eyes have seen has been regarded as a major breakthrough. Some of the images have indicated that large areas of Mars once were submerged in water. One of the rovers spotted traces of a shallow pool of salt water.
“This is very exciting news!” Wadsworth told the Louisville Courier-Journal back in March. “I have waited my entire life for some little bit of my work to make a meaningful contribution to science.”
U of L is Home to One of the Finest Planetariums on Earth
Christened in 2001, the Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium is a comfortable, high-tech learning center that offers a variety of educational and entertaining programs about astronomy and space science.
The facility is designed to provide a unique learning environment and features the latest multi-media projection systems in a 55-foot hemispherical dome, which comprises the planetarium theater.
The theater is designed for highly accurate presentations of astronomy, surrounding the audience with a 360-degree projected view of the night sky revealing more than 4,000 stars and realistic projections of planets and other celestial objects. Three-dimensional computer model imagery and 360-degree panoramic projection combine with state-of-the-art surround sound to create a virtual reality experience.
The planetarium provides daily public and school programs. In addition the Roving Astronomer Program, in which representatives of the planetarium give programs at schools and community groups, also is offered through the facility.
Named for long-time Louisville civic leader Rabbi Joseph Rauch, the original Rauch Memorial Planetarium opened in 1962 and served the university and community for 36 years until it was razed in 1998. With help from a $1.4 million gift from the Gheens Foundation, the new Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium was completed and officially opened in April 2001.
For more information on the Gheens Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium, visit the Web site at www.louisville.edu/planetarium.
U of L's Resident Stargazer
No feature about space research at the University of Louisville would be complete without mentioning John F. Kielkopf, long-time physics professor and director of U of L’s Moore Observatory.
Kielkopf, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics at U of L in the mid-1960s, received his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1969. That same year he joined U of L’s faculty. He’s been here ever since.
Kielkopf, who in 1997 received U of L’s President’s Award for outstanding research, has studied hydrogen atom and molecule collisions with grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. He currently is researching the theory of spectral line shapes for interpreting and modeling the spectra of white dwarf stars for NASA. He’s also studying astronomical spectroscopy of comets and the interstellar medium.
For more than 25 years, Kielkopf has served as director of the Moore Observatory located on the 200-acre Horner Wildlife Refuge in Oldham County. The observatory is named for Walter Lee Moore, mathematics professor at U of L from 1929 to 1967.
The observatory features a research telescope, a remote control telescope, a wide field automated imaging telescope, a solar flare monitor and the Wide Field Spectral Imager (WSPI), which was designed and constructed by Kielkopf in 1993 and 1994. Using a high-speed optical system, WSPI provides a new capability for measuring the spectrum of the sky across fields of view much larger than the full moon. Data from the instrument can be acquired remotely and then stored and analyzed on a high-speed workstation.
Wang Studies the Effects of Space Travel on Cells
Eugenia Wang, a U of L professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, is using a $1.3 million NASA grant to study the long-term effects off space travel on human cells. This will be a huge consideration for astronauts traveling to Mars.
Not only do space travelers face the intense vibrations of liftoff, they also endure extended exposure to radiation and weightlessness. Wang wants to understand the biology of human cell changes caused by all of this.
It’s part of her larger research into identifying the genes responsible for age-related maladies such as Alzheimer’s, cancer and osteoporosis. Wang has devoted her life’s work to studying human genetics in an effort to solve the fundamental mysteries of aging.
She expects her NASA research to bring new insight into how the body ages.
“If I could get even one finding to slow down aging here on Earth, it’s worth it” to go into space, Wang said in an interview earlier this year.