Editor’s note: This is the first ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.
Nestled in the mountains near the French-Spanish border is a wall of mirrors seven stories high. When sunlight strikes the mirrors, it focuses on a single room that reaches 6,300 degrees Fahrenheit. “That’s one of the things we used to convince NASA we had a shot in hell of working,” said Justin Kasper, AB’99.
Kasper heads a team that built a key instrument aboard NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is flying closer to the sun than any previous craft. But he has experience making things that shouldn’t exist; he and roommate Fred Niell, AB’99, became campus legends when they built a working breeder nuclear reactor in Kasper’s Burton-Judson dorm room for the 1999 Scav Hunt.
“That’s kind of what I do professionally,” said Kasper, now a University of Michigan professor and a research associate with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. “Every year NASA puts out a list of things that need to be built for some crazy mission, and you look at the list and you get a group of people together and tell them, ‘I know this sounds crazy, but we’re going to try to figure out how to get a sample of the sun’s atmosphere.’”
All of NASA’s spacecraft are unique, but the Parker Probe—named after Eugene Parker, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Physics, who in 1958 first predicted the existence of solar wind—has an especially difficult mission. As it travels across deep space and then dips into the sun’s corona, it will experience external temperatures from well below zero to more than a million degrees Fahrenheit. It will be bombarded with radiation, the equivalent of a couple of megawatts’ worth of sunlight, and possibly dust particles flying faster than bullets.