Newswise — David McComas, the Princeton University vice president for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory and a professor of astrophysical sciences at the University, will receive the European Geosciences Union’s prestigious (EGU) 2022 Hannes Alfvén Medal for his space plasma physics research. McComas has led or participated in dozens of NASA missions investigating space physics, is the principal investigator of three missions, and has written more than 730 refereed papers.
His contributions include leading NASA’s Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP), scheduled to launch in 2025, which will explore the heliosphere, the region of space dominated by the Sun and its solar wind. IMAP has 10 instruments and will collect particles from the interstellar medium outside the heliosphere as well as from inside the heliosphere and from the boundary region between the solar wind and the interstellar medium that limits the amount of harmful cosmic radiation that can penetrate into the solar system. The mission will also study cosmic rays, which pose risks to astronauts and spacecraft systems.
McComas is the principal investigator in the Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX) mission, a satellite the size of a bus tire that launched in 2008 to also explore the boundary of the solar system. He also leads the Integrated Science Investigation of the Sun (ISʘIS), a two-instrument suite on the Parker Solar Probe that measures energetic particles over a broad energy range into very close distances from the sun.
The Hannes Alfvén medal is named for the Swedish physicist who won the 1970 Nobel laureate in physics and is awarded annually for outstanding contributions in plasma physics. McComas will receive the award during the EGU General Assembly 2022 in April. “These individuals are honored for their important contributions to the Earth, planetary and space sciences,” the EGU said in its announcement.
McComas said he was “surprised and elated” to learn he was receiving the award. “It was very unexpected and a super honor. I’m really humbled to have even been nominated for this,” McComas said.
McComas has been Princeton University vice president for PPPL since 2016. He serves on the Princeton University President’s Cabinet, the President’s Council and the Executive Compliance Committee. A new PPPL executive management team has been installed since then led by Steven Cowley, the former chief executive officer of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAE) and head of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy who became PPPL’s director in 2018. The following year McComas negotiated and signed for the University an extension of the University’s contract with the DOE to continue to manage and operate PPPL into 2022.
Progress at PPPL
“PPPL has made a lot of progress since I arrived in 2016,” McComas said. “With the new leadership team that’s come in, we’ve been expanding the future goals of the Lab and on the University side, we’ve also really embraced the Lab in a different way by bringing the Lab into the strategic framework of the trustees and administration. There are a lot of really positive developments from my perspective.”
McComas holds seven patents. He teaches an undergraduate experimental course in space physics. He is a founder of the Space Physics group in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton and the Space Physics Lab where the Solar Wind and Pickup Ion instrument – one of the 10 IMAP instruments - is being assembled and tested.
McComas received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1980 and a Ph.D. in geophysics and space physics from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1986. He was an assistant vice president for space science and engineering at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and a founder of a joint SwRI and University of Texas-San Antonio graduate program in physics as a professor in physics and astronomy
20-year career at Los Alamos
He previously worked for 20 years at Los Alamos National Laboratory where he was the founding director of the Center for Space Science and Exploration, responsible for leading all civilian space programs at the laboratory.
McComas serves on the National Academies Space Studies Board and the Brookhaven National Laboratory Science Associates Board of Directors and recently served on the NASA Advisory Council and chaired the NAC Science Committee. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has received numerous awards, including NASA’s Exceptional Public Service Medal in 2015, the 2014 Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) Space Science Award, and the AGU’s James B. Macelwane Medal in 1993.
McComas has recently focused on improving diversity and inclusion at PPPL and in astrophysics. He is sponsoring an equity, diversity and anti-racism assessment at PPPL that is currently underway. He is also a member of the committee of the National Academies of Science, Medicine and Engineering on how to increase diversity among leaders of NASA space missions.
Numerous space missions
In addition to his work on IMAP, IBEX and the Parker Solar Probe, McComas was principal investigator on numerous other space missions. These include the Two Wide-Angle Imaging Neutral-Atom Spectrometers (TWINS) Mission-of-Opportunity launched in 2006 and 2008. He is co-lead investigator for the Solar Wind Electron Proton Alpha Monitor (SWEPAM) instrument on the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) launched in 1997 and the solar wind analyzer for the New Horizons mission to Pluto (SWAP) that launched in 2006. He led the development, launch and initial analysis of the Jovian Auroral Distributions Experiment (JADE) on the Juno spacecraft orbits over Jupiter’s poles.
McComas noted that many missions he has led have involved collaborations with European space physicists. His first mission at Los Alamos was on a project called “Ulysses,” a spacecraft that used the gravity of Jupiter to sling into an orbit over the poles of the sun. The spacecraft was built in Germany and had European and American instruments. More recently, the IMAP mission involved six countries, including Poland, England, and Switzerland.
“I’ve made a concerted effort to build collaborative teams with Europeans and other scientists around the world and to think very globally about how to build the strongest teams and do the best science internationally,” McComas said. “So when I look at this award, I hope that it somehow reflects my very lifelong commitment to making sure that we’re doing space science internationally.”
PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.