At 6 p.m. Aug. 29, Bridgewater resident Andy Gerrard and his fellow professors and graduate students at the New Jersey Institute of Technology gathered for an early dinner before heading back to the school offices and working until the wee hours of the morning—and at 4 a.m. Aug. 30, they all watched NASA’s launch from Cape Canaveral of the twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP) mission.
“It was very exciting, very scary,” Gerrard said of watching the launch. “In the back of your head you always wonder if something will go horribly wrong and that there would have to be a termination of the rocket/spacecraft. You never admit it or talk about it, however, even though you know everyone else is thinking the same thing.”
“The entire two weeks before the launch, we all were knocking on wood constantly,” he added. “I didn’t want to be the guy to jinx everything.”
Although he was not involved in the design of the Radiation Belt Storm Probes Ion Composition Experiment (RBSPICE), Gerrard said the work on the device was overseen by Louis Lanzeroiit, a fellow professor at NJIT.
The device, Gerrard said, measures ion compositions and energies in the Earth’s radiation belts. That, he said, is important for communications, GPS and geostationary satellites, and also takes care of operating in a very difficult region because of high levels of solar radiation.
“Right now, our understanding of how the Earth’s radiation belts evolve during solar storms is quite limited, and the entire RBSP mission should assist the larger community in understanding the dominant processes occurring therein,” he said.
And once the device sends data back, Gerrard said, his work will begin as he will use it to explore how radiation belts behave.
“My own research interests include magnetospheric physics, and thus with the [offices] right next door to my office at NJIT, it was natural that I’d be interested,” he said. “Serendipitously, both the instrument and I showed up at NJIT in the summer of 2006.”
“In more recent years, I work with the RBSPICE science team, supervise graduate students that will be working with the data and am organizing the RBSP ground-based support,” he added.
Gerrard said it was exciting to watch the launch with students and other professors, as they gathered in front of two large screen monitors with snacks, soda and lots of coffee at about 3:45 a.m. to await the launch.
“Thereafter, it was a nervous and exciting wait for the ‘Go Checks,’ countdown and launch,” he said. “As the spacecraft carrying RBSP was launching, Louis called in and we put him on speakerphone. It was nice being able to share the moment with him, and, after the launch, we toasted the rocket and Lou.”
As for Gerrard’s other work, he worked on what will be the largest operational telescope on the East Coast, available for public use, at the Jenny Jump State Forrest near Hope.
“We at NJIT are working closely with the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey, which is a group of amateur astronomers that do professional quality astronomical observing,” he said. “We are studying how energy from the lower atmosphere propagates upwards to high altitudes and can potentially impact local circulations.”
“This work was initiated while I was a graduate student at Penn State, and has always been near and dear to me,” he added.
As to his career, the Bridgewater resident as of May 2008 began working at NJIT in August 2006. He said it is interesting because people often have a negative tone in their voices when discussing NJIT and its association with Newark.
“But in all honesty they couldn’t be more wrong,” he said. “Newark and NJIT have grown in such amazingly positive ways in the past decade or so. The city is vibrant, exciting and has a ton of potential.”
Gerrard said he has been teaching his whole life, and is always satisfied by being able to help students really understand science and math, and sometimes even change their minds.
“I’d say that the best thing about it is being able to correct all the goofy and wrong things that college students were taught in their elementary and secondary education experience,” he said. “I think that many of our students have a fear of physics and math because, quite frankly, the stuff they were taught while they were younger was poorly delivered and usually wrong.”
“It is very satisfying to see students that, while initially afraid of physics and math, finally hear the right story and see that all makes sense,” he added.