The Catholic University of America

Oct. 8, 2009

His Mission: To Resurrect a NASA Technology Whose Secrets Have Been Forgotten

Gunther Kletetschka

Sometimes great scientific advances are made … and then the know-how that produced them is forgotten and needs to be rediscovered. That's what's behind a $168,000 NASA grant given to CUA Research Professor of Physics Gunther Kletetschka. His mission: to rediscover how to create the technology that enables the space agency to measure magnetic fields of the sun, Earth and planets.

In the 1960s and 1970s, NASA and the U.S. Navy worked together to discover how to make the small but ultra-sensitive magnetic ring which is the sensing component within magnetometers that measure the intensity and direction of magnetic fields. The stock of these rings that were manufactured around that time has been used in satellites and space probes ever since.

The wedding band-sized rings enable magnetometers to measure the magnetic fields around heavenly bodies, orient satellites to keep them parallel to Earth's magnetic field, and gauge the effect of solar storms on Earth's magnetic field.

Because NASA magnetometers didn't have many commercial applications, the technology wasn't picked up by industry, however, and no additional magnetic rings have been made in recent decades, according to Kletetschka.

Now, unfortunately, the rings' creators have passed away and much of the know-how for creating more rings has been lost.

When the first magnetic ring was manufactured, its inventors published scientific journal articles about the manufacturing process, and Kletetschka is poring over those articles to try to duplicate their achievement.

The problem is that "the articles don't give all the information," he says. "They say, 'we did this and that,' but they're not specific, and the devil is in the details."

"The lack of this technology is detrimental for the future of NASA missions requiring sensitive magnetic-field measurements," says Kletetschka, a specialist in material magnetism.

NASA doesn't want to run out of the rings and doesn't want to pay exorbitant prices to buy them from some other country that might redevelop the technology. Therefore it is paying the CUA professor to see if he can reinvent the wheel by resurrecting this very complex manufacturing process.

If Kletetschka makes enough progress, the one-year NASA grant will be renewable for additional years.

The rings are made from a magnetic alloy of iron, nickel and molybdenum. The most difficult part of their manufacture is permanently pinning down the rings' magnetic domain walls, which normally fluctuate. Every magnetic material has internal domain walls - interfaces separating magnetic domains - and the trick to making the rings useful as sensing devices is to make those domain walls stationary, says Kletetschka.

"The way to do that is through a process of heating the material and cooling it down in very controlled ways," he says. The final step of the process must be done in a hydrogen atmosphere.

Magnetometers are important, the professor says, because the magnetic fields they measure are one of the fundamental properties of space. It is the magnetic field around the Earth that keeps high-energy particles emitted by the sun from stripping off our planet's outer atmosphere. "Without the earth's magnetic field, the Earth would eventually come to look like Mars, which no longer has any surface water and has a very thin atmosphere," says Kletetschka.

Studying magnetic fields also helps astronomers understand the development of our solar system and galaxy, and helps scientists understand how the magnetic flux thrown toward the Earth by solar storms sometimes disables the electric power grid of an entire region or country.

MEDIA: For more information, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy in Catholic University's Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600.