When Hyunju Connor was in high school, she received a C on her physics exam. Now she is a space physicist studying solar winds and helping NASA launch a rocket this week.
A professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Connor studies the interaction of the solar wind with Earth’s magnetosphere. This year, she worked on the satellite component of the Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket that will be launched this week from California, in addition to two more rocket launches in the upcoming years.
Connor will be looking at how solar wind interacts with Earth’s magnetosphere with the help of a satellite measuring some soft X rays emitted by Earth’s magnetosphere.
The process in which solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetosphere is called magnetic reconnection — a mechanism that allows the solar wind particles to come into the Earth’s magnetosphere and create geomagnetic disturbances.
Magnetic reconnection creates an open spot and lets the energy of solar winds flow into our system, sometimes creating Aurora Borealis and sometimes — excessive currents affecting electronic devices, power systems, and even the oil pipeline in Alaska, Connor said. The irregularities caused by aurora can also create communication problems with satellites, airplanes, and cell phones.
For each of the three rocket launches, Connor works on satellite components — the CuPID, LEXI and SMILE missions— that essentially will take different pictures of Earth’s magnetosphere with a camera that looks for low energy X-rays emitted during the solar wind-magnetosphere interaction.
A small satellite CuPID will take a detailed picture of a small area of the Earth’s magnetosphere for three months of its mission period. The second satellite LEXI also has a very small camera, but it will be taking photos of Earth’s magnetosphere from the moon’s surface, capturing a bigger picture. Due to the harsh environment on the lunar surface, LEXI can survive for two weeks. The last satellite, SMILE, will be somewhere between the two previous locations, but the view from it will be continuously changing, allowing for a different vantage point for the images during three years of its mission period.
“Think about you taking a photo of your house in front of the door,” Connor said. “Your iPhone can catch the very detailed features of your door, but cannot take the whole house picture because you’re too close to the house. If you have a camera very far away from the house, then you can take the whole picture.”
After the rocket is launched, the first two to four weeks, scientists will keep checking the data set and then can start analyzing the data.
From love for stars to love for auroras
Long before looking at the solar wind, Connor fell in love with stars.
“When I was young, I really loved astronomy,” said Connor, who is originally from South Korea. “I just fell in love with stars and planets. But then I was also a student who hated physics.”
After Connor received a C for one of her physics exams, the physics teacher came to her, saying, “I heard a rumor that you love astronomy, but to be a good astronomer, you need to be good at physics.’”
“It was a very shocking moment in my life,” she said. “That’s the time that I started studying physics and I finally got an A for that final grade.”
Fast forward a few decades, Connor realized that space physics is a much more hands-on field. After graduating from the University of New Hampshire, Connor applied to the NASA Postdoctoral Program to research alongside NASA professionals and eventually found herself at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.
“University of Alaska Fairbanks has a very worldly renowned Space Science Institute, actually, so that’s why I was excited to see this opportunity,” she said. Besides, her advisor in South Korea who introduced the space weather to her was actually a PhD from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“He was my mentor, and also he was the one of the people who made me a space scientist so I was really excited about the opportunity,” she said.
Besides the Institute, Connor is excited about living in Fairbanks now — and the auroras that she hasn’t seen with the naked eye before coming here.
“I see a lot of auroras every night. Maybe not every night — sometimes I get very tired — but I’m really excited to see the overall activities over the Alaska sky,” she said.
Auroras come in two types. Space storm auroras are relatively rare, maybe one per year, but they bring vivid colors and changing shapes for lights that dance the whole night. A sub storm aurora is a daily occurrence, but it’s weaker, and you need to be at the right location to see it.
“So I’ve seen one space storm aurora, and after that I’m not looking for substorms anymore,” Connor laughed.
Besides launching rockets and chasing auroras, Connor is occupied with her family. Her husband is a math high school teacher at the Ben Eielson High School and together they have a 4-year-old daughter, “Alaska baby,” as Connor calls her.
Connor wanted to be present at the launch, but as a mother of a 4-year-old, she couldn’t get away. She hopes by the next launch, she will get a chance.
“I hope that the pandemic will be solved by them, and then I can definitely go there, hopefully with my whole family, to watch the launch,” she said. “Because it’s a really rare opportunity in anyone’s life.”