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IOWA CITY — How much time do you have?
That was what legendary University of Iowa astrophysicist Don Gurnett wanted to know of anyone who asked about his work. Because no matter how busy he was uncovering mysteries of the universe or drafting galactic hypotheses, Gurnett always made time to teach.
From a young age, inquiry drove Gurnett to discovery. He’s recounted for The Gazette memories walking the UI campus as a teenage freshman with his eyes heavenward in awe of Sputnik, the novel Russian satellite fueling the international space race.
Generations later — after mentoring under legendary UI physicist James Van Allen, writing the book on plasma physics, designing and building instruments for more than 35 space missions, publishing 700-plus papers, teaching 111 classes over more than 50 years, and advising 47 master’s and doctoral students in establishing himself as one of the university’s brightest stars — Gurnett died on Thursday.
He was 81, and continued working until the last week of his life, his daughter, Christina Gurnett, said in a statement.
“My father was extremely proud of having spent his career at the University of Iowa and was deeply committed to the future of experimental space physics at Iowa,” Gurnett said. “His legacy will continue through the work of the students he inspired through his teaching.”
Gurnett got his start as an enterprising young scientist at age 10, building model airplanes and working alongside Collins Radio engineers in Cedar Rapids. Seven years later, in 1957, he walked into Van Allen’s office as a UI freshman wanting to turn his radio-controlled electronics experience into a job — which he did.
And Gurnett never left, earning his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering in 1962, followed by his doctorate in physics three years later, when he promptly joined the UI faculty.
During his career at the university, Gurnett established himself as founder of the field of space plasma wave physics — discovering, among other things, the science behind auroras and the first detailed radio emissions measure from outer planets. Through his work on the Voyager I and II missions, Gurnett informed the world of the first spacecraft to exit the solar system and enter interstellar space.
Although Gurnett retired in May 2019, he couldn’t pry himself away from his passion.
“I’ll probably keep coming to work, just like I normally do,” Gurnett told The Gazette from inside his campus office in June 2019, weeks after he officially retired.
At that time, Gurnett was writing up new findings from Voyager II confirming data from Voyager I, which Gurnett had predicted. Gurnett over his years spent significant time on the NASA missions, which launched in 1977 and became the first human-made objects to cross into interstellar space — first Voyager I in 2012 and Voyager II in 2018.
In 2019, Gurnett reported Voyager I was 145 astronomical units from Earth — just one is equal to the mean distance from the center of the Earth to the center of the sun. Voyager II was out 120 astronomical units. At the time, Gurnett said he hoped to live long enough to complete the Voyager mission.
Perhaps testament to the science he helped inform, the missions today continue — with Voyager I at 155 astronomical units from Earth and Voyager II at nearly 130.
“Don Gurnett is a legend in space exploration who has made profound contributions to the university’s teaching, research, and institutional profile,” UI President Barbara Wilson said in a statement. “His theoretical observations and experimental findings over a 60-year career — from the dawn of the Space Age to the present — have revolutionized the field of space plasma physics and have broadened humanity’s knowledge of Earth and space.”
Gurnett also has been involved in NASA’s Galileo, Cassini, Mars Express and Juno missions among the 41 total he’s helped on. Of the 67 spacecraft projects that UI researchers have informed, Gurnett played a role in nearly two-thirds.
“Don’s career is really the career of our effort in space,” said Jim Green, one of Gurnett’s former students in the 1970s who went on to become NASA’s director of its Planetary Science Division.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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