Alumnus Jeff Bloch '75 talks with the Advancement Office about all things "space." From satellites to supernovas and star-gazing to space junk, in a word: WOW!
AO: Tell us about growing up in Lake Placid?
JB: Growing up as a science nerd in a sports obsessed town was quite the contrast. I was a science enthusiast in the Olympic Village. I was a day student all four years. My freshman year was the first year that girls were admitted to Northwood — 17 girls and 100 boys, up to 30 girls when I graduated.
AO: Principal scientist for space situational awareness? Can you explain what that means?
JB: I just retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory after 29 years and joined another mostly government research and development company called Applied Research Associates. I explain my job as the lead scientist for understanding what’s going on in space — specifically, all the stuff that powers our economy in space. There are many commercial activities in space like the satellites that feed your GPS map App and your TV from Dish or DirectTV Network, and satellites that serve our military as well as performing scientific research. Space, whether you know it or not, has become seamlessly interwoven into our lives in a very practical way. Communication, navigation, crop forecasting, weather forecasting — all of these things are enabled by satellites operating in space. The space enterprise has grown tremendously. Space has become a domain like air or sea for commercial, civilian, scientific, government and military purposes. We’re not transporting things in space but we’re collecting and transporting information from and through space and that information economy has become extremely important. The U.S. currently tracks 30,000 objects in space of which around 800 are operating satellites. The rest are “space junk” left over from satellite launches, or satellites that no longer function.
AO: Is this a career you pursued straight out of high school or did it take you a while to figure out what you wanted to do in life? Your Senior yearbook photo (you looking through the lens of a telescope at a solar eclipse off the coast of Africa), does provide some clues…
JB: I was interested in Physics and computers and astronomy in high school. I did my undergrad at MIT, a Bachelor’s in Physics, and received my PhD at the University of Wisconsin Madison. The amazing thing about MIT was that you got to work in a lot of labs for class credit where actual research was being done. I worked with an X-ray astronomy research group that had their own X-ray astronomy research satellite, and I got a chance to actually write computer programs for that group to analyze data from the satellite. And while at University of Wisconsin-Madison, I built an x-ray detector to detect hot gas in space that our research group flew on a suborbital sounding rocket from White Sands, NM.
AO: Have you ever been to space yourself? Would you consider private space travel? JB: I have launched things into space. It’s an exciting prospect but I don’t think I would like to be the first tourist to go. The problem is I know too much. I know what could go wrong.
AO: Most people think of Los Alamos as an uber-secretive place. Are most of the projects that you work on “classified?”
JB: Some were, but there was a lot of open science too. I worked on these automated robotic telescopes that caught fleeting events in space – this had been this 30 year mystery. In the 1960s the United States started putting nuclear detectors in space to verify and monitor nuclear explosion test ban treaties. These instruments serendipitously detected a previously unknown phenomena called gamma ray busts that were clearly not nuclear bursts. In order to catch these things and understand what they were we needed automated systems because they only lasted seconds and then completely disappeared. The communication capability of the Internet allowed us for the first time to connect disparate automated telescopes and instruments in space and on the ground together and enabled us for the first time to see the optical flash associated with the gamma ray bursts and then figure out what was causing these things. It turns out they were humungous explosions at the edge of the universe that momentarily put out a tremendous amount of energy, outshining everything else for a brief moment. These explosions were a giant star becoming a supernova and turning into a black hole.
AO: Of what are you most proud – personally and professionally?
JB: Besides finally marrying the perfect person? Professionally it’s just a number of things. I think one thing is that I was in the right place right time to conceive, build, and fly a satellite from cradle to grave…it was a microsatellite called ALEXIS (Array of Low Energy X-ray Imaging Sensors). It weighed about 200lbs and was the size of a foot locker. Back in the 1990s, when people thought you needed a satellite the size of a Greyhound bus to do anything useful, we proved that a small satellite was very capable. Now the next revolution in satellites are cubesats. Google them. A high School class can now build and launch a satellite the size of a loaf of bread that do very interesting things.
AO: What would you say to Northwood students today – about finding your path in life? JB: I would say start with your passion but then do a lot of research to guide that passion onto a path with the most opportunity. I think we’re living in an age of disruption and we’re facing more and more disruption in so many domains — political, economic and so on. Be prepared and be wary. Smart phones and social media are an economic disruption that have changed the way we do things. Who would have thought that a nation to nation squabble would play out as a corporate (Sony) computer hack because of a Hollywood movie that a totalitarian leader of North Korea didn’t like?
AO: Where is your favorite place to star gaze?
JB: I only pull out the telescope to show the grandkids these days, but my favorite place to star gaze is at the site of an Air Force telescope on the top of the Haleakala volcano on the island of Maui and my second choice is anywhere here in New Mexico. The New Mexico skies are amazing. And, my wife and I headed to Jackson Hole this summer to view the Great American Solar Eclipse.