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Dan Reisenfeld remembers signing up his second-grade classmates to be crew members on the S.S. Enterprise. He was to be captain, of course, and he meticulously assigned positions on the starship that were best suited to each second-grader’s individual skills.
Nobody suspected then that this Star Trek fantasy could lead to the real thing.
For the Cincinnati native grew up loving science, and, despite toying with becoming an architect or filmmaker, he studied physics at Yale and astronomy at Harvard. His thesis was titled “An Absolute Measurement of Resonance-resolved Electron Impact Excitation.” All this led to postdoctoral work at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, where he got into the business of designing actual NASA spacecraft and interpreting the data they produce.
He became an explorer — boldly going where no man had gone before.
Reisenfeld worked at Los Alamos during 1998-2004, meeting and marrying Maureen, a civil engineer. While he loved his work, he also realized he loved teaching. (He had taught at Harvard and the University of New Mexico.) And Maureen had this idea to start an orchard. So last year the Los Alamos staff scientist became an assistant professor with UM’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, and trees have been planted near Stevensville. Joshua Orion Reisenfeld was born in January.
Though the 38-year-old astrophysicist has left Los Alamos behind, the number of NASA probes he’s worked with has grown. Among them are:
Ulysses, a mission to study solar wind coming from the sun. Using Ulysses data, Reisenfeld had a “eureka moment” when he learned why helium streaming from the sun slows down compared to its hydrogen counterparts. He proved the helium encounters turbulence from ionized plasma gas in space, which slows it down. “That had been a mystery for 30 years,” Reisenfeld says.
Reisenfeld’s immediate plans call for teaching UM physics students and outfitting UM’s Montana Space Flight Prototype Facility, which will test designs for future NASA probes. One of his lab’s first tasks will be to bring in the spare mass spectrometer for Deep Space 1 and use it to characterize the flight instrument on the probe. (Mass spectrometers measure the atomic masses of ions that enter them.) Only then can the comet-flyby data be interpreted accurately.
“I have so much work coming up that it’s going to be a struggle to do it all,” he says, “but I plan to have several UM students come on board to help out.”