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Astronaut, scientists add to community brain power on eclipse day

Aug 22, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

"The sun is dying! Long live the sun!" Loren Acton jokingly yelled as Earth's middle-aged star became a mere sliver in Riverton's late morning sky.

Acton peered up, holding a welding glass above his head as the sky became darker and temperatures dropped nine degrees.

By the time totality ended, he said the eclipse's corona formation above Riverton was the best he had experienced. And if anyone knows about that type of thing, it's Acton: Monday's was the sixth total solar eclipse he has seen.

The 81-year-old has spent a good chunk of his life studying the unusually hot outer layers of the Sun.

He originally planned to be an engineer, but instead he began a 29-year career for the Lockheed Palo Alto Research Laboratory in the 1960s, after having earned a doctorate in solar physics from the University of Colorado.

On Monday, he joined his nephew - space engineer and Riverton native Scott Acton - at a home near the Riverton library to watch the eclipse.

David Le Mignant, a French astrophysicist and former colleague of Scott Acton's - they had worked together on an adaptive optics system at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii - also flew to Riverton to enjoy the eclipse.

Monday was Le Mignant's birthday. After the eclipse, he planned to head out Tuesday to visit Yellowstone National Park. But he said the geology in the Fremont County area was "especially a delight to see."

It wasn't only scientists that gathered with the Actons. When totality hit, Sam Cook, an opera singer from Texas and friend of Scott Acton's, broke into an a capella performance of "O Sole Mio," the 19th century Neapolitan song that once won Luciano Pavarotti a Grammy.

Scott Acton first suggested Cook visit for the eclipse when Scott Acton was on a cross-country bicycle trip promoting the James Webb telescope, which Scott Acton helped to develop.

After a few glasses of scotch at Cook's home in October, the singer was feeling "quite generous" and agreed to join Scott Acton on an 80-mile leg the next morning, on a "really hilly part of the ride."

"At the time, I didn't know all about totality," Cook said, but Scott Acton filled him in during the trip.

Only two weeks ago, Cook called Scott to finally tell him he was coming for the eclipse.

Astronaut's widow

Marie Fullerton, the widow of NASA astronaut Gordon Fullerton, also joined the Actons in Riverton to take in the experience Monday.

She said she felt lucky to have a connection to Loren Acton, and to such a prime viewing location.

Gordon Fullerton, who was "Gordo" to her, was the commander of the SpaceLab II mission that conducted 13 major experiments in space. After training as a part-time astronaut for seven years, Loren Acton flew on that eight-day mission as a payload specialist, and he has been friends with the Fullertons ever since.

Spacelab II's first launch attempt aborted after three seconds then lost an engine once it successfully got to space. It was a year before the Challenger disaster, though, and Marie Fullerton said such launches weren't yet terrifying.

"It was just exciting," she said.

Before the mission, Gordon Fullerton brought home space food to share with their children, who would also gather to watch their father's egress training.

He continued flying under he was 71. Two years later, he suffered a stroke and eventually succumbed to its complications in 2013. He is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Gordon Fullerton died on Aug. 21, exactly four years before Monday's solar eclipse. His wife said she likes to think God scheduled the eclipse in his honor.

Five-year plan

Up at Riverton Regional Airport, Al Jung, a civil engineer from Oklahoma, had flown into Riverton with his wife, Elaine, to view the eclipse.

They spent a few hours at the airport setting up a powerful telescope that captured photos every two minutes during the partial phase of the eclipse and every two seconds during totality.

They had been planning the trip for about five years.

"But God's been planning this for a lot longer," Elaine said.

Career peerers

While locals were awestruck by the rare phenomenon, perhaps none appreciated the perfect conditions more than those who have spent their careers peering up into the skies.

The most valued subject of eclipse viewing during totality is the sun's corona, the dancing aura of plasma surrounding the sun that remains visible while the moon blocks out everything else.

The sun's corona makes it an unusual star. Despite begin farther away from the sun's core, the corona's plasma reaches temperatures 200 times hotter than the sun's surface.

That baffling phenomenon led 19th century scientists to suggest that a nonexistent element, coronium, might be present in the corona.

"We didn't know about the mechanisms the sun used to develop these hot temperatures," Loren Acton said.

It's that "active sun" that Loren has spent his career trying to explain. In 1968, he designed a sounding rocket for NASA that flew to study the x-ray wavelengths being emitted from the sun's periphery.

The work set off his career as an "experimentalist," designing new equipment that provides for more sophisticated collection of data.

"In some ways, I ended up being an engineer after all," Loren Acton said.

Because of the research by Loren Acton and other astronomers, the science community now understands that the extraordinary temperature increase in the sun's corona comes from the dissipation of magnetic field energy.

As a magnetic star, the sun's lower atmosphere is surrounded by flowing loops of magnetism that heat up to 1 million degrees Kelvin before the fluxes unfurl into space.

"They're twisted and tangled -- and they don't want to be that way," Loren Acton said, noting the phenomenon makes the sun a "very interesting star."

Later in his career, Loren Acton worked on Yohkoh, a joint mission between the United States and Japan that launched in 1991 and revealed more information about sunspots.

Sunspots, the dark blots on the sun that were visible during Monday's partial eclipse, are caused by coronal loops and other magnetic fluxes that temporarily limit convection on parts of the Sun.

The Yohkoh mission ended in 2001, but not before the observatory spacecraft was able to provide high resolution pictures of the sunspots' roughly 10-year cycle.

"That was the experiment of my dream," Loren Acton said.

He retired in 1993 and has been a professor at Montana State University, where he had once been an undergraduate student after growing up on a ranch near Bozeman.

The Monday solar eclipse delighted millions across the country, but the event is also sure to provide a new set of data that scientists will be able to use to further understand the sun's corona.

"Science in this era is such a wonderful thing that humans do," Loren said. "(The discoveries) are not only wonderful but they're beautiful."

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Retired NASA astronaut Loren Acton and Marie Fullerton, widow of Acton's fellow astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander Gordon Fullerton, watched the early phase of the eclipse from a residence in Riverton. Photo by Dan Bendtsen

Retired NASA astronaut Loren Acton and Marie Fullerton, widow of Acton's fellow astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander Gordon Fullerton, watched the early phase of the eclipse from a residence in Riverton. Photo by Dan Bendtsen


Retired NASA astronaut Loren Acton and Marie Fullerton, widow of Acton's fellow astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander Gordon Fullerton, watched the early phase of the eclipse from a residence in Riverton. Photo by Dan Bendtsen

Retired NASA astronaut Loren Acton and Marie Fullerton, widow of Acton's fellow astronaut and Space Shuttle Commander Gordon Fullerton, watched the early phase of the eclipse from a residence in Riverton. Photo by Dan Bendtsen

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2017-09-24

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