Dr. William FolknerSpace Technology 7, Lead Technologist
Cooking Up Technology to "Feed" LISA
Since 1993 technologist Bill Folkner has been "cooking up" experiments for use on a future space science mission that may help us answer the questions "How did the universe begin?" "Does time have a beginning and an end?" "Does space have edges?" During the past ten years Folkner has led studies on emerging technologies that could be used on the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, better known as LISA. That mission will detect gravitational waves in space, with origins perhaps as far back as the occurrence of the Big Bang.
As a child, Folkner was naturally curious. Why was the sky blue, why was the grass green, what made the sun shine? He was also interested in flying for the Navy but, his eyesight wasn't good enough to be a pilot. So, he decided at an early age to become a scientist instead, to find answers to his many questions. This decision was heartily encouraged by his family, a mix of working class and professional people in the small southwestern town of Los Alamos, New Mexicothe home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). In a town where most professional people worked on physics-related projects, Bill's father had earned a degree in mathematics and was one of the first people to work on computer operating systems.
To reach his goal, Bill took as many math and science classes as he could throughout junior high and high school. His diligence was rewarded when he won a state-wide mathematics contest and was given a college scholarship. He stayed close to home while completing his undergraduate studies at the University of New Mexico (UNM), but attended the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle for his first year of graduate school. The experiments at UW didn't hold his interest, however, and he returned to New Mexico to work for a year on a proton storage ring for a particle accelerator at LANL. He then transferred to the University of Maryland (UM) where the physics department included a group working to detect gravitational waves. The group was led by Joe Weber, the first person to develop detection techniques. After earning a Masters of Science and a doctorate in physics, Dr. Folkner joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in 1988, where he worked with a group perfecting radio tracking techniques.
During his career at JPL, Folkner has performed various experiments to determine the locations of spacecraft near planets, to detect radio signals on Earth, and to measure radio signals. Of these experiments, Folkner states that "...detecting the radio signal from the Galileo probe on Earth is the hardest experiment I've ever done. It took four months of hard work to really know if we had gotten it or not."
Folkner's experiments to measure radio signals from the Mars Pathfinder lander and determine the rate of spin of Mars confirmed, for the first time, that Mars has a dense core as expected. He also developed a method to determine the position of planets that is compatible with radio tracking of spacecraft. That methodology improved navigation accuracy by an order of magnitude and is one of the things that allowed the Mars Pathfinder and Mars Exploration Rover projects to be done. Folkner is proud of these achievements, along with his contributions to the LISA project conceptual design. He takes tremendous satisfaction in his work and has no "do-over" wishes, but finds that microbiology now also fascinates him. Says Folkner, "The technology in that field is now mature enough to study and create life forms with a range of possibilities that is almost unlimited."
Not just a physicist, Folkner enjoys science fiction books and sports, rooting for the Lakers, Dodgers, and Angels or playing himself: golf and grass volleyball. He hopes to continue conducting experiments that lead to new knowledge about the cosmos. As a citizen of the universe, Folkner professes, "I hope the people of the world can learn to cooperate enough to start forming plans longer than one election cycle. We need to protect our environment on Earth and expand to other parts of the solar system."
Written by Sandi Beck.