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UML’s 30-year mission in space

By From the Lowell Sun

By Matt Murphy
Sun Staff

 Lowellߞ;In late December, the stream of data transmitted from a space satellite to a Wannalancit Mills laboratory stopped.
     For the first time in nearly 5 and 1/2 years, UMass Lowell researchers had lost contact with NASA’s IMAGE satellite, which carried two pieces of radar equipment conceived and built in Lowell.
     Launched in the summer of 2000, the satellite was designed to help scientists under the composition of the magnetosphere, a belt in space controlled by the Earth’s magnetic field that protects the atmosphere from particle radiation emitted from the sun and solar winds.
     The mission was only expected to last two years.
      For Dr. Bodo Reinisch and his team of scientists at UMass Lowell’s Center for Atmospheric Research, it was a disappointing end to an otherwise wildly successful mission, one that yielded enough raw data for 68 scholarly papers.
     “It really was a remarkable scientific success. As a result, we are working on another payload that could be launched by 2008 or 2009,” said Reinisch, director of the research center.
     Reinisch, a tall, soft-spoken man with a white beard and a thin accent, has known little but success since he arrived in Lowell from his native Germany in 1965.
     After earning his master’s degree in physics and math from the University of Freiburg, Reinisch came to the United States on sabbatical to work with his former colleague, Klaus Bibl.
     Bibl, also from the University of Freiburg, had arrived at the Lowell Technological Institute (which merged with Lowell State College to Become the University of Lowell, and later UMass Lowell) only two years earlier and was working with a small group of physicists studying the Earth’s ionosphere.
     Reinisch stayed in Lowell, earning his doctorate in physics before starting the first interdisciplinary research center at the university in 1975.
     “At the time, it was a foreign concept to -have and interdisciplinary research center that combined disciplines such as the sciences and engineering,” Reinisch explained.
     Now, UMass Lowell boasts 36 such research centers, perhaps most notably its center for nanotechnology.
     But the lack of fame has not deterred Reinisch or his dedicated team. The Center for Atmospheric Research last year celebrated its 30th anniversary, a significant milestone for a research center solely dependent on outside grants for funding. And the center shows no signs of slowing down.
 Over the years, the center has made a worldwide name for itself, using radar technology developed in Lowell labs to research the ionosphere.
     The ionosphere is a part of the Earth’s atmosphere consisting of ionized particles and plasma created by ultra violet light rays from the sun. These plasma particles reflect radio waves back toward Earth and are the reason you might be able to hear and AM radio station located in Buffalo, N.Y., on your drive home from work in Massachusetts. By using its radar-imaging technology, dubbed Digisonde Radar, UMass Lowell scientists have developed a mechanism to map the location and the density of plasma particles as they move through the ionosphere. Digisonde radar unites are now located at86 stations throughout the world, from the Haystack Observatory in Westford Argentina, Pakistan and Greece.
     The Australian government contracted with the Atmosphere Research Center for 14 Digisonde unites to help the country monitor drug trafficking from the Philippines.
     “This is what I tell my students,” Reinisch said. “You do research and development, and if there is a practical use, you can be very happy that the science can be used to help mankind.”
     The bulk of the center’s funding comes from contracts with NASA, the Air Force and foreign governments. Reinisch said his budget varies from $3 million to $4 million a year in research grants.
     Though he might have made millions had he started a private company on his ownߞ;and he had more than one offerߞ;Reinisch doesn’t regret staying in the academic world.
     “I’m not a businessman and I don’t want to be. I want to work with students and researchers and develop new ideas,” said Reinisch, who teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
     The university provides the center with a sprawling loft on the third floor of the Wannalancit Mills on Suffolk Street. Like a junkyard for scientists, the work area is littered with copper wire, computer boards and voltage meters.
     Some of the older Digisonde unites dating back to the 1980s are in the shop for repairs. Standing more than 6 feet tall, the radar equipment comes in two parts, each the size of a refrigerator. Technological advances have allowed UMass Lowell scientists to cut the size of the newer modules to just larger than a microwave.
      Ten years ago, Reinisch said, NASA began to realize that digital plasma-sensing technology could be extremely useful for space research. UMass Lowell beat out scientists from prestigious institutes such as Johns Hopkins University and the University of California Berkley to build a payload for the IMAGE satellite to study the magnetosphere.
     Lowell physicists and engineers are now hard at work with researchers from Stanford University trying to design a new payload for NASA that could be launched into orbit before the end of the decade.
     The satellite with transmit low-frequency radio waves into the magnetosphere to ma and follow the movement of energetic particles that travel in that region of space jus outside the Earth’s atmosphere.
     The practical goal, Reinisch said, ultimately would be to find a way to bleat out these particles from the magnetosphere that damage satellites and spacecraft.
 In a small office near the back of the center’s loft, Bibl still works with the center’s engineers, tinkering with the devices that could soon be sent into space. Through he has gone into semi-retirement, the 85-year-old physicist says he is having too much fun to stop now.
     With wild white hair and an infectious smile, Bibl marvels at the fact that the center he helped form 30 years ago still exists.
     “It’s a miracle we’re still here,” he chuckled.
 Though admittedly younger than Bibl, Reinisch declined to give his age. Perhaps he was afraid what it might suggest about impending retirement.
     Since 1975, Reinisch has assembled a team of engineers, physicists and computer scientists from around the world, bringing many to UMass Lowell to study and work at the center.
     Some ran research institutes in China, while others worked in remote areas of Russia.
     “The team has told me that if I go, so will they. So I stick around,” Reinisch said, only half-joking.
     But the future of the Atmospheric Research Center, despite all its success, does concern the graying scientist. “It’s a serious worry. It’s a normal thing for a university to do, close a center when the leader moves on.”
     But Reinisch is quick to point out that the success of the research center is due to the dedication and loyalty of his 35-person staff.
     “We have always been a team here, in good times and in bad,” he said
     When money was tight, Reinisch and others cut their salaries to avoid layoffs. And now that times are good again, they share in the rewards.
     Dr. Paul Song joined the center as a co-director four years ago, and Reinisch is confident that when the time comes for him to retire, the center with be in good hands.
     “What will happen when I say enough is enough? I don’t know. But we are planning for the future, and there are good people here,” he said.