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Updated 5:30 PM February 1, 2008




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  Distinguished University Professor
Lecture: Space plasma, 50 years after its discovery

The space between the planets, the stars and the galaxies is filled with plasma, a gas-like medium of charged particles that emit radiation. Lennard Fisk has devoted his career to studying this space, a harsh environment that artificial satellites and astronauts must endure.
(File Photo/Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

Fisk, a professor in the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences Department, will give a Distinguished University Professor address on the field of space plasma physics at 4 p.m. Feb. 4 in the Rackham Amphitheater. The title of his talk is "The Science and Sociology of Space Plasma Physics."

The lecture takes place during the week of the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. satellite launch. Explorer 1, America's answer to Russian-launched Sputnik, was dispatched Jan. 31, 1958. It gathered data that led to the discovery of Earth's Van Allen radiation belts, wing-shaped regions of denser plasma that flank the planet at certain altitudes above the magnetosphere.

"Explorer 1's discovery began the field of space plasma physics," Fisk says. "At this time, it's fitting to pause and ask what we have done, how the field evolved and what we can do here at Michigan to encourage its growth. We are very strong in this area. We need to take a leadership position as a university."

Fisk, a 15-year veteran of U-M, previously spent six years as the associate administrator for space science and applications at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). He currently is chair of the National Academies Space Studies Board, which advises NASA. Fisk will discuss space policy as well as science in his address. He will focus on how the field of space plasma physics has evolved and whether that evolution hinders or ensures a bright future for the field.

During the past five decades, space plasma physicists have developed a deep understanding of the atmosphere of the sun and its expansion into space, the solar wind. The solar wind interacts with and alters the magnetic fields of the planets. Scientists have discovered that the sun and the solar wind are prodigious accelerators of energetic particle radiation. The environment of space is filled with interesting plasma phenomena, Fisk says, which scientists need to better understand for future exploration and utilization of space.

Fisk is the Thomas M. Donahue Distinguished University Professor of Space Science. He served as chair of his department from 1993-2003. Prior to serving at NASA, he was a physics professor and vice president for research and financial affairs at the University of New Hampshire. He has authored close to 200 publications and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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