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The Amazing Planetary Science Career of Don Gurnett

Presentation #513.10 in the session Fire and Ice: Europa and Aurorae.

Published onOct 20, 2022
The Amazing Planetary Science Career of Don Gurnett

Donald Gurnett was a world-renowned leader in space research whose career extended nearly 6 decades passed away in January 2022. He specialized in the study of space plasma physics and his influence on the field of space and planetary science has simply been revolutionary. Without him, detailed understanding of magnetospheres and the interplanetary medium would be incomplete. He authored or co-authored over 650 scientific peer reviewed publications. Don, who grew up with a love for aeronautics, had a part-time job working on radios at Collins Radio and had been studying engineering at the University of Iowa (UI) in 1958. He’d heard about James Van Allen’s discovery of the radiation belts with Explorer-1 and desperately wanting to be part of space missions so he then asked Van Allen for a job and got it. After completing his BS in electrical engineering at UI (’62), he transferred to physics, where he received his MS (’63) and PhD (‘65). It was at this time that he convinced Van Allen that a radio wave experiment should be flown on the next UI spacecraft. Van Allen agreed and with the success of INJUN-3 Don started the new field of space plasma wave research.

Don had instruments on over 35 missions that went to nearly every planet in our solar system, discovering new plasma waves around Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Don has discovered more than a dozen different types of plasma waves and radio waves such as: chorus, auroral hiss, kilometric radiation, and continuum radiation. It was with Don’s instrument that enabled the detection of the edge of our Sun’s heliosphere showing that Voyager-1 had become the first man-made object to arrive in interstellar space.

Another amazing aspect of Don is that he always viewed educating younger researchers as equal in importance to his space science research and building instruments. He regularly taught both undergraduate and graduate courses in physics. Over his career he advised and mentored an entire generation of graduate students who are now serving the country at NASA, in industry, and at universities. In total, he guided the research for 29 PhD and 31 MS thesis projects and advised 17 postdoctoral research scholars. I am proud to say that I was just one of his students.

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