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University of Iowa Physicist Receives Record-Breaking NASA Research Award

Ben Kieffer
Don Gurnett and Craig Kletzing in the River to River studio

The University of Iowa has received a $115 million research award-- its largest ever -- from NASA to study the interactions between the magnetic fields of the sun and the Earth. 

The project is part of NASA's Explorers Program, which studies how the sun affects space around planets. University of Iowa physicist Craig Kletzing will lead the project. He says it will study the Earth’s cusps -- which are openings in the planet’s magnetic field lines.

Kletzing says it will take more than three years to build the two satellites that will then spend two years in space collecting data.

The University of Iowa will partner with other institutions around the country such as Dartmouth College, Auburn University, UCLA, University of California, Berkeley and University of Colorado, Boulder to help build and launch the satellites. 

"It’s led from us but virtually none of these kinds of projects on the scale that they are can be done by any one institution," Kletzing said, "and that’s why we collaborate with people who are experts on the different kinds of instruments that we have and the science that we are doing."

Joining host Ben Kieffer and Kletzing on this edition of River to River is Don Gurnett, a retired University of Iowa plasma physicist. Gurnett retired in May 2019 after more than 60 years in space exploration. 

As an undergraduate, Gurnett worked with famed Iowa physicist James Van Allen whose cosmic ray instrument aboard Explorer 1 in 1958 led to the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts around Earth.

Gurnett has designed and built instruments for more than 35 missions.  His discoveries include characterizing strange near-Earth space sounds, solving how auroras are created, and determining that the spacecraft Voyager 1 was the first human-made object to leave the solar system and reach interstellar space.

Though Gurnett is retired, his passion for space exploration has not dwindled. He said there's still a big question for space exploration to answer -- whether there's life beyond earth?

"I think there's life someplace in the universe, whether there is life in the solar system is another matter," Gurnett said.  "There is one favorite place we'd all like to go, called Europa.  It has an icy surface, but there's good reason to believe that under that surface there's an ocean.  That's almost certainly water."

"I think it's a key thing we have to understand as a civilization," Kletzing said.  "It helps us understand our place in the universe."

Gurnett donated an endowed professorship to the University of Iowa about three years ago. Kletzing has been selected for that professorship.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk