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Japan 'Home Away From Home' For NASA Marshall Astrophysicist Supporting Hinode, An International Mission To Study Sun
Steve Roy
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.
(Phone: 256.544.0034)

News Release: 06-139

Dr. Alphonse Sterling at the Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima, Japan, before the launch of Hinode, an international mission to study the sun. To study our nearest star, Dr. Alphonse Sterling, an astrophysicist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., is going the distance -- not to the sun itself, but to Japan.

There, he'll spend several years supporting Hinode, the international satellite mission to study the sun. A big change? Not for Sterling, who has made Japan his home away from home for nearly a third of his life.

This time around, Sterling's focus will be a solar observatory that unites international partners in pursuit of one common goal, studying explosive activity on the sun. Known as Solar-B before reaching orbit, the spacecraft Hinode, which is Japanese for sunrise, launched Sept. 22 from Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima, Japan -- nearly three decades after Sterling launched his own personal campaign to learn Japanese.

Now fluent in the language, Sterling has spent 12 of the last 17 years in Japan, immersing himself in his solar physics research and in Japanese culture. For most of the 1990s, Sterling supported satellite and science operations for Yohkoh, an orbiting observatory that studied the sun in X-rays and gamma-rays. Like Hinode, Yohkoh was a Japanese-led mission with international partners including NASA.

Beginning in January 2007, Sterling again will be living in Japan, working in the Tokyo suburb of Sagamihara -- the site of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency facility that controls the Hinode spacecraft. He will be part of a team that acts as a liaison between the instrument technicians who gather scientific data and the operations team that flies the spacecraft.

For Sterling, a typical day at the Japanese facility might include reviewing proposed satellite commands, supporting scientific data-collection, and speaking an always-varied blend of English and Japanese. "Most Japanese people have taken several years of English," he says. "And most scientific papers -- even those authored by Japanese scientists -- are written in English." As a result, the language spoken at the Hinode operations center is a unique blend of English and Japanese.

Looking back, Sterling identifies two factors that fueled his initial interest in the Japanese language. "I had a friend whose parents were missionaries in Japan," he says. "And in high school, the letters of the Japanese alphabet reminded me of mathematical symbols. They were mysterious, and I wanted to learn more about them." Sterling also has studied Chinese, but always returns to Japanese as his primary second language.

"Long ago, I made a big mistake," he jokes. "I said I'd continue learning Japanese until I became satisfied with my level of proficiency. But I'm never satisfied."

Sterling first visited Japan in 1979, between semesters at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Over the next few years, Sterling returned to Japan repeatedly as part of his academic and professional pursuits. This included a two-year stay from 1989 to 1991 as a postdoctoral research fellow at Kyoto University in the historic city of Kyoto, the seat of Japanese emperors for more than a thousand years.

On this excursion, Sterling is set to remain in Japan for at least three years, conducting solar physics research while supporting Hinode operations. The author or co-author of more than 40 research publications, he'll use data from Hinode to further his solar physics research.

Hinode is an ideal tool for that pursuit. Together, its three instruments -- the Solar Optical Telescope, the X-Ray Telescope and the Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer -- will observe how changes in the sun's magnetic field spread through different layers of the solar atmosphere. These observations are expected to help Sterling and fellow scientists better understand solar disturbances, which can interfere with satellite communications and electric power transmission grids, and threaten the safety of astronauts traveling beyond the safety of the Earth's magnetic field.

Hinode is a collaboration between the space agencies of Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom and other European nations. The mission is part of the Solar Terrestrial Probes Program within the Heliophysics Division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. NASA, supported by academia and industry, prepared major instrument components for the spacecraft, with the Marshall Center managing development of all scientific instrumentation provided by NASA.

For more information about Solar-B, visit:

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