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Solar Physicist Kelly Korreck Probes Mysterious Moves of our Nearest Star

Kelly Korreck
IF/THEN Ambassador Kelly Korreck, Ph.D.

The sun’s light and heat is obvious to many of Earth’s inhabitants. But the enormous power of our local star still holds secrets scientists are working to unlock.

For example, when the sun spews a large cloud of energetic and highly magnetized plasma from the solar corona into space, it can cause radio and magnetic disturbances on Earth.

The tools developed by solar physicist Kelly Korreck, Ph.D., at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory help forecast these events. That knowledge could possibly save lives, as well as billions of dollars in equipment damage and lost work hours.

These events are called coronal mass ejections (CMEs). They can threaten astronauts and airline passengers with radiation, and cripple power grids. Millions of people around the world can find their GPS, satellite communications, and internet out of whack during these events.

“Folks obviously would like to have predictions very quickly and very accurately, if you're trying to schedule polar flights and [need] safety for pilots, you would want to know these things in advance,” says Korreck. 

At the Smithsonian, she is head of Science Operations and Project Manager of the SWEAP instrument suite (Solar Wind Electron Alpha and Proton) that is onboard NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. The mission is designed to understand the origin and acceleration of the sun’s steady stream of charged particles, also known as solar wind. The tools aboard the probe will also examine the heating and energy coming up from the sun’s corona, the atmosphere surrounding the sun that is more than a million degrees Celsius, which is actually much hotter than the surface.

Since its launch in 2018, the spacecraft has broken the record for the fastest human-made object. And it has broken the record for being the closest human-made object to the sun seven, different times.

Our team celebrates these [records] every time because space is hard. We never take anything for granted,” Korreck says.

Other than some software updates, Korreck says the spacecraft and its tools have performed “beautifully.” The closest approach to the sun will be in 2024. The team used theory, remote sensing, modeling, and telescope observations to help predict the magnetic fields the spacecraft would encounter. But, because doing science in space is always a challenge, there have been some surprises, including the discovery of some rogue magnetic waves about 75% of the way to the sun.

“The predictions were that [the spacecraft] would probably go through a magnetic field equivalent to a gently sloping rolling road. But then once it got there, there seems to be these waves of magnetic energy that come out and just bowl over the spacecraft. And it's so dangerous for the spacecraft. [We’re] again looking at the topology that's very different than what we thought we'd find,” says Korreck.

She says the waves of magnetic energy are possibly made by the churning and whipping around of the magnetic field near the sun's surface, although that is not confirmed.

In the Solar Stellar X-ray Group of the Smithsonian, Korreck also coordinates research with the European Space Agency (ESA). Teams work together to make sure ESA’s Solar Orbiter and NASA’s Solar Probe are seeking and sharing different pieces of the same solar system puzzles. For the next two years, Korreck will be working at the Smithsonian like usual but at NASA headquarters, to work on international space issues and projects on the magnetosphere, the ionosphere, and other parts of the solar system.

As the first scientist in her family, Korreck invests a great deal of time in outreach, too. Her speeches and videos are as meticulously produced as her scientific instruments. She’s worked with the Alan Alda School for Science Communication. She has also worked with an acting coach on her public speaking, knowing that even the title of “astrophysicist” can be intimidating.

Here’s how she describes the complexities of a coronal mass ejection to non-scientific audiences: “The sun basically throws temper tantrums. We are trying to understand why the sun gets angry and produces these flares, these coronal mass ejections. [They] are the equivalent of 80 million school buses being hurled at us at millions of miles an hour, and that could damage life on Earth.”

Outreach is important to Korreck in other ways. Her selection as one of 125 AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors is helping knock down barriers to girls and women who want to enter, succeed and thrive in STEM careers. However, the pandemic has altered the group’s planned mentoring activities. Many ambassadors have ramped up their posts on social media, celebrating achievements and helping silence the trolls who odiously try to diminish the work of women leaders. Korreck has reached out to students and teachers via Zoom, and other programs that match scientists with classrooms, to promote science, engineering and innovation.

Whether addressing inequality or huge clouds of hot plasma millions of miles away, Korreck is looking for answers that can make a difference.

“I'm answering all those questions that we ask ourselves about the stars and about ourselves when we look at the stars, about the closest one that we have. And so, that's how I relate this to folks. With space weather, it's very relevant. That star over there actually will affect whether your GPS works or not. And so, isn't that amazing, that we're so connected to a star?” she says.


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Marsha Walton