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U of A scientists prepare for the solar eclipse

We are just 42 days from the solar eclipse that will make its way across a wide swath of the state of Arkansas. When you think about outer space and NASA, there are probably other parts of the US that come to mind: the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, or the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. But believe it or not, the University of Arkansas is touted as having a “peerless” university lab. Vincent Chevrier is the director of the Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Sciences, and he said one reason it’s peerless is the fact that it’s a multidisciplinary program.

“It’s like making a recipe for a cake,” Chevrier said. “I’m going to take the biology for the flour somewhere, the geology for the eggs, and combine that in ways that allow me to understand the cake that I’m looking at.”

It’s notable that Chevrier’s research is not in astronomy. His academic research is in chemistry, but he said he’s been interested in outer space since he was a kid.

“I was around 8 years old,” Chevrier said. “My father is an avid reader, and when I was a kid, I remember he had a whole collection of astronomy books. This was a few years after the Viking missions landed on Mars, it was still in the middle of the Voyager traveling through the solar system. I was not particularly into stars or galaxies or black holes, but I found the planets really interesting. And, of course, the possibility of life on other planets is really fascinating.”

He went on to study the surface of planets from a geology perspective. Eventually he made his way to the University of Arkansas as a post-doc student to begin working at the Center for Space and Planetary Sciences. The work of outer space is about more than just putting on a space suit and walking on the moon. Vincent said that the subfields within planetary sciences are so intertwined that it’s almost necessary to have an education in a litany of scientific fields.

“So for example, if you take Titan, the biggest moon of Saturn,” Chevrier said, “we know there are lakes on Titan. So, you could approach studying the lakes from the perspective of geography and geomorphology. Where are the lakes situated? How do they connect with rivers? Then, you could connect that to geology. And then when you start to look at the lakes and realize, oh wait, those are not made of water. It’s so cold they are made of liquid methane and ethane, so now you’re connected to engineering.

You also have more theoretical studies of the sciences. Dan Kennefick is a professor of physics at the U of A who also works as a part of the Center for Space and Planetary Sciences. And yes, we have another professor who is not an astronomer talking about outer space. But we can make a bit of an exception with Dan.

“My wife is an astronomer who is an alumnus of the U of A and she felt the call of home.”

So Dan and his wife Julia moved to Fayetteville in the early 2000s and both came on as professors. Early on in their time at the university though, Julia said to Dan there aren't that many astronomers at the University of Arkansas.

“We were building up our astronomy program, and we’ve hired two more since that time, but nevertheless, at the time it was a small part of the physics department. She said, ‘In order to take best advantage of what we have, we ought to collaborate.’ It’s easy to end up using the specialists skills that you have. I’m a theorist, she’s an observationalist, but we are both interested in supermassive black holes. I wanted to know what kind of gravitational waves they are sending away that we hope to one day actually detect, sehe was interested in the fact that they are swallowing starts and emit a huge amount of light.” They began working together along with some students to do black hole demography, which is essentially a census counting and cataloging black holes in galaxies.

Over half of the graduates from these master’s and doctoral programs have gone on to work for NASA, NASA-related research facilities, or private companies who have contracts with NASA. Now, it might seem like having no physical presence of NASA near the program might be detrimental. Chevrier said the opposite is true.

“I talk to plenty of people, and they told me that they could only work on funded projects,” Chevrier said. “Sometimes you can almost see on a mission or an instrument you have a flourishing paper and then nothing at at all. We ask the group who designed them why it stopped, and they said, ‘Well, because we ran out of funding. We had to stop.’ I don’t have to stop. I have my funding, which allows me to hire students and postdocs, supplies, instruments … I’m not tied to having to work on one of the topics on funding. I’m free to explore whatever I want.

Doing whatever research they want also allows them to be hyper specific in their research as well. Kennefick said one way they have done that is through the acquisition of some older equipment from a NASA center.

They had an old vacuum chamber called the Andromeda Chamber that they just didn’t really want anymore,” Kennefick said. “They said, more or less, ‘free to a good home.’”

Now, they are able to recreate planetary surface simulations and do research on how water would flow on Mars.

“That would potentially enable a NASA robot on Mars or a spaceship overhead to take pictures, compare that to [our research], and say ‘Wow, that does look quite like the way water ran in the simulation in the chamber in Arkansas.’”

Chevrier said the chamber now does research on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

It’s hard to talk about outer space in Arkansas this year without talking about the upcoming total solar eclipse. Kennefick pointed out that the fact that Earth can experience a total solar eclipse is, to put it lightly, rare.

“We’re very fortunate here on Earth,” Kennefick said. “It is a very remarkable coincidence that although our moon is tiny comparted to the sun, it is just the right position so that its appareant size in the sky is exactly the same as that of the sun. No other planet has this.”

Kennefick said this will be his third time trying to see a solar eclipse with his wife .

“The first time we were clouded out — there was heavy cloud cover so that we couldn’t see the sun,” Kennefick said. “We were lucky enough to see it in 2017. It was funny, because one of my children said, ‘Why are we going to see what we can watch on YouTube?’ Even she admitted afterwards that it was worth being there.”

Chevrier said he’ll be in Russellville and has no intention of doing work on April 8.

“There’s no class, I won’t be at the lab, I don’t care,” Chevrier said. “I tell the students, ‘Don’t bother. It’s a full solar eclipse, go do whatever you have to do to see it.'”

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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