Chryssa Kouveliotou: Astrophysicist

When we say that Dr. Chryssa Kouveliotou has discovered a star, we do not mean an actor, a rock singer, or a supermodel – we mean an actual star. In fact, the Athens-born astrophysicist has discovered an entire type of star: magnetars, “neutron stars with the highest magnetic fields in nature,” she told TNH.

From the time she was a young girl growing up in Greece, Kouveliotou was fascinated by the stars she gazed at in the sky, and knew she wanted to learn more about them. But there were no Greek astronauts. “To my recollection,” she told TNH, “there was no opportunity for non-U.S. citizens to become astronauts 30 some years ago. I remember asking a colleague at NASA/GSFC (National Aeronautics and Space Administration/Goddard Space Flight Center) around 1979 when I was visiting as a graduate student (Kouveliotou has earned a master’s degree in astronomy and a PhD in astrophysics). This was quite a disappointment, so I opted for the best alternative goal: joining NASA.”

Human beings have been fascinated by the universe since the beginning of time, and continue to be – as countless mysteries remain unsolved. If astronomers who have dedicated their professional lives to this discipline remain in awe, so much so laypersons who know comparatively far less. With that in mind, we asked Dr. Kouvelioutou some of the more basic questions that many of our fellow laypersons might have.

First of all, NASA has ended the launching of Space Shuttles. Does that mean there are no more planned trips in space? Not at all, Kouvelioutou reassures. “The Space Shuttle was a vehicle for transportation of missions and humans flown by astronauts. NASA retired the existing shuttles after they reached the end of their lives. The agency is currently working on a replacement to carry astronauts and missions in space – the new vehicle is called the Space Launch System. The Orion crew capsule just completed successfully its first 4.5-hour flight test on December 4.”

NEW FRONTIERS

Particularly when the nation is in deficit-conscious, belt-tightening mode, some think that the space program is a colossal waste of money. Others, though, laud its overall value to the quality of life here on earth. “I belong to the second camp,” Kouveliotou says. “NASA developed technology for space travel that resulted in a very large number of spinoffs, many of which were subsequently utilized as commercial products. NASA maintains a page with all the technological spinoffs and it is very interesting and educational to go through it and see how much everyday society has benefited during our quest for the stars (http://spinoff.nasa.gov/).” Incredibly, this list now includes technology that allows thirsty plants to transmit signals to farmers that they need more water.

But there is more to it than utility. “Besides these very real and practical benefits,” Kouveliotou says, “I believe that there is an immeasurable value in humanity being able to break free from of our planet into the frontiers of space, eventually and ultimately exploring ‘new worlds and new civilizations.’ Assuming our species lives long enough, develops faster ways of transportation, and sustainability over long travel durations, earthlings are poised to leave planet Earth and go beyond our solar system.

Does this mean, as many have suggested, a colony on Mars? “Not in my lifetime,” Kouveliotou says, though NASA is planning a human mission to Mars sometime in the first half of this century – maybe even within the next 20 years.

FULL CIRCLE

Particularly fulfilling for Kouveliotou in her 24-year career at the NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL was her discovery of magnetars. She elaborates: “a neutron star is the end product of the gravitational collapse of a massive star after lots of matter is shed during its explosion as a supernova. They are the densest and smallest stars in the universe packing within a ~5 mile radius a mass roughly twice that of our sun.” Kouveliotou has also spent her professional life studying gamma ray bursts, “the brightest transients in gamma rays in the universe.” The winner of numerous awards, including being named by Time magazine in 2012 as of the 25 Most Influential Women in Space, Kouveliotou is also a member of the very prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

And now, as she happily announced to TNH, her life comes full circle as she returns to academia, where she started many years ago. In February, she becomes a Professor at the George Washington University in Washington DC, “where I will build a research center in Astrophysics.”

GREEKS IN SPACE?

Kouveliotou says she is unaware of any Greek astronauts or even astronaut candidates. “They become astronauts after they fly in space,” she explains. What advice would she give to a young girl today who, like she once did, gazes at the stars and wants to know more about them? “When I started all I had deep in my core was the determination to study astrophysics despite any obstacle and hardship. On the way there were tough, wrong, and lucky choices, and goal adjustments and corrections. As long as you really want it you can do it. Just dream it and work hard.”

Finally, the burning question: Do you think, Dr. Kouveliotou, that there is life on other planets in other parts of the universe? Her answer: “I hope so.”