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Launching Undergraduate Success
Through Research
WHEN MORGAN O’NEILL and George Clark were seniors in high school, neither put UNH at the top of their college lists because neither of the wannabe scientists thought they’d get the high-level, hands-on research opportunities they coveted.

Now, after four years at UNH, both are poised to begin graduate school in pursuit of their Ph.D.s, and both sum up their success with one word – IBEX – NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer mission, which launched in October 2008.

O'Neill and Clark
Morgan O'Neill and George Clark worked in
the EOS Facility for Optical Calibration at
Low Light Levels where they calibrated the
star sensor for the IBEX mission.

Photo by D.Sims, UNH-EOS


“IBEX is completely responsible, it’s why I’m going to grad school,” says O’Neill who heads off to M.I.T. this fall.

Notes Clark, who will attend the University of Texas at San Antonio and do research at the neighboring Southwest Research Institute working with IBEX principal investigator David McComas, “I can’t imagine my resume without IBEX.”

Indeed, the mission was the guiding force through their four years at UNH. As freshmen, the physics majors began working with Eberhard Möbius of the Space Science Center and Department of Physics calibrating the unique star sensor for the IBEX mission. The star sensor helps pinpoint the precise direction of the energetic neutral atoms – IBEX’s quarry – that are hurtling straight into our solar system from the far reaches of space.

Says O’Neill, “Dr. Möbius has encouraged us all along. He made it possible for me to go to Poland last summer to work on IBEX and sent George to the AGU Fall Meeting last year. This whole IBEX experience has been amazing and has made it easy for us to achieve outstanding things.”

And the two have been aptly recognized for those things. Last year Clark was given an Award of Excellence at the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Symposium (ISE) for the poster he presented on his star sensor work. And at this year’s ISE, O’Neill picked up an award for work she did that will allow the star sensor to add the Moon, with its well-known orbit and brightness, to the library of objects that the star sensor can recognize. (O’Neill also picked up another ISE award, in collaboration with graduate student and Research & Discover fellow Virginia Sawyer, for research on air/sea carbon dioxide flux during hurricanes, which they conducted as part of a graduate-level course.)


O'Neill and Clark
The geocorona, a halo of low density hydrogen around the Earth (center), photographed April 21, 1972 by astronaut John W. Young, Apollo 16 commander.
Image courtesy of NASA
“Both students have been a great addition to our IBEX team,” says Möbius. “Without their very independent work, we would not have such a well-functioning and well-calibrated star sensor on IBEX. They fully deserve the awards for their work.”


Both physics majors chose the astronomy option, which prepares students for professional work as a physicist or astrophysicist, and both wrote a senior thesis on aspects of their star sensor work – the Moon “correction” in O’Neill’s case, and Clark’s analysis of the Milky Way brightness and its impact on the star sensor.

In addition to the Milky Way’s light, an unexpectedly strong source turns out to be the geocorona – a layer of our atmosphere that resides in space and, when hit by sunlight, produces a glow of colorful light as hydrogen atoms are illuminated.

Like the Moon’s glow and the light emitted by the Milky Way’s billions of stars, the geocorona poses a threat to the star sensor because it reduces the number of bright stars the instrument can isolate through analysis.

“We knew it was out there but we didn’t expect it to be so bright,” Clark says of the geocorona. According to Clark, study of the geocorona is considered an exploratory science because there is much to learn about this atmospheric feature. Happily, the star sensor, which was never intended for this type of research, will actually provide helpful data.

Says Clark, “Further investigation of the geocorona will provide us with more insight into the Sun-Earth connection, and may even help global climate models since they are dependent on the physical processes that take place in our atmosphere.”

Both Clark’s and O’Neill’s thesis work will eventually be folded into the star sensor’s software to provide the needed corrections and make the instrument that much more accurate. They presented their work at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Toronto at the end of May. -DS

For more about the IBEX mission visit www.ibex.swri.edu.


by David Sims, Science Writer, Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space. Published in Summer 2009 issue of EOS Spheres.