Touch the sun
Trans World Features | 06 Apr 2018
Touch the sun
Kolkata-born Indian American astrophysicist Madhulika Guhathakurta has been fascinated by the stars from a young age. Presently working at NASA she leads many signature programmes, particularly researches on the sun. She speaks to SPAN magazine writer Natasa Milas about her passion

Last August, North America witnessed  total eclipse of the sun which was dubbed “The Great American Eclipse” by the media, as the last time the country saw a total eclipse was in 1979. NASA’s lead scientist for the eclipse was astrophysicist Madhulika Guhathakurta.


Born in Kolkata, Guhathakurta holds a master’s degree in astrophysics from the University of Delhi and a Ph.D. from the University of Denver. She led the ‘Living With a Star’ programme at NASA for 15 years, which focuses on understanding and ultimately predicting solar variability and its diverse effects on earth, human technology and astronauts in space.


The programme gave rise to another initiative, known as the International “Living with a Star”, which brings together all the space agencies of the world to contribute toward the scientific goal of understanding space weather. Guhathakurta served as the chair of this group for four years and remains a member of its steering committee.


Guhathakurta is a spokesperson for NASA’s Heliophysics Division and has created graduate textbooks on this new discipline, which is a hybrid of astrophysics and meteorology. Her research has focused on the study of the sun as a star, its influence on earth, and sun’s outermost layer, the corona.


Excerpts from an interview:


Could you please tell us about your background—growing up in India, your early interest in science?


When I was very young , I used to watch the night sky in Kolkata. I had the same question that NASA puts in big labels as one of its quintessential problems: “Where did we come from?” As an adult, I know how difficult it is to answer this question. You just can’t say “Big Bang” because the question remains, well, what was there before the Big Bang? But I never gave up the quest. In the Delhi University I pursued  astrophysics and general theory of relativity.  


In the United States you focused your research on the study of the sun. How did you get interested in this?


The sun is the only star we can study in great detail. My personal research has been directed toward the synthesis of a number of multi-wavelength observations, ranging from radio to extreme ultraviolet and, in situ, for purposes of characterising the source regions of solar wind and coronal mass ejections and their propagation through the interplanetary medium. Energetic particles associated with these coronal mass ejections and solar wind cause space weather on Earth and other planets. This has direct consequences here on Earth and on society at large—the very theme of NASA’s Living With a Star program.


In fact, it was during my graduate schoolwork when I was dreaming of this mission called “Solar Probe” to send a spacecraft to within few solar radii of the sun to verify some of the most hotly-debated topics in solar physics. Little did I know that someday, I would be a champion for making this mission real.


Please tell us about some of the fascinating projects that you have been involved with at NASA.


At NASA, we are privileged to see and to know so many things that ordinary people don’t get a chance to experience; for example, some of our imagery! I came up with a storyline to share the ‘Living with a Star’ programme and show some of these exquisite images. I helped in the creation of two major planetarium shows, “Cosmic Collisions” and “Journey to the Stars,” in partnership with the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Children, general public, older people, are all learning something about the cosmos that they had no way of knowing otherwise.


In 2018, you will be leading a team for a historic Parker Solar Probe mission of NASA. Could you tell us more about it?


Parker Solar Probe is a historic mission to answer some of the fundamental mysteries of physics: Why is our star’s atmosphere thousands of times hotter than its surface? And what propels the solar wind that affects earth and our solar system? We have been wrestling with these questions for decades, and this mission should finally provide the answers.


Other than your work with NASA, have you been academically involved with astrophysics?


For the past 11 years, I have worked with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research to develop five “Heliophysics” textbooks, summer school curricula, and training for the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists.


The programme provides a special opportunity to students and undergraduate faculty to learn about heliophysics as a broad, coherent discipline that reaches, in space, from the earth’s troposphere to the depths of the sun and, in time, from the formation of the solar system to the distant future.


At the same time, a goal of the summer school is to provide a professional development opportunity to undergraduate faculty to incorporate heliophysics and astrophysics examples into physics, astronomy and earth science courses.


What are some of your future plans at NASA and beyond?


I have drawn together the “disparate” strands of solar-terrestrial physics and enabled international cooperation with the ultimate goal of understanding the meteorology of space or space weather. A mission close to my heart, Solar Probe Plus, is planned for launch in 2018. It will even “touch the sun,” contributing to better characterising and forecasting the radiation environment in which future space explorers will work and live. As such, I hope that all these efforts will help the human species go from being earth-dwellers to space farers.