Tom Krimigis: Ambassador to the Solar System

Jun 28, 2016

Physicist Tom Krimigis designs scientific instruments for space; they’ve gone to every planet in the solar system. He’s the only person in the world with that achievement. Krimigis came to the United States from Greece at the start of the Space Age, and later led the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. He was recently in Flagstaff for an event at Lowell Observatory and spoke with KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny about his half-century tour of the solar system.

Tom Krimigis
Credit Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory


Melissa Sevigny: So you worked on the very first missions to Mars and Venus, and then later built instruments for the Voyager missions that went to the outer solar system.

I feel terrifically lucky to have done that. It was a confluence of circumstances, you know. The Space Age just started in time so that we could design a mission like that and be lucky enough to be at the right age at the right place at the right time and be selected for that mission.   

And the Voyagers have actually left the region of space influenced by our sun. What are we finding out there?

One of them did, Voyager 1, and of course all models that were provided for the galaxy thought that it was going to be a very calm and undisturbed medium. And what we’re finding out is that there are all these tsunamis of activity that somehow are emitted from the sun. There’s all kind of disturbances that go on in the environment around Voyager including electrons that oscillate and produce very funny sounds. 

So you can actually hear it?

You can actually hear the electrons oscillating and we have these antennas on Voyager that have been quiet for a long time and all of the sudden they start singing, with various intensities of sound.

You were also involved in the New Horizons mission that flew by Pluto last year. Was there anything about Pluto that surprised you?   

Well, is there anything about Pluto after New Horizons that didn’t surprise anybody? It turned out to have totally amazing geology and geophysics and composition and geological forms that nobody expected. That’s the beauty of exploration, you know. Nature is far more imaginative than we are.  

Pluto rounded off your tour of the solar system. What’s next for you?

Well, one of the projects I’d been pushing ever since I was young was the Solar Probe.  This particular mission finally is being implemented and is being done at my laboratory, and we’re launching in about two years, July of 2018. I hope I’m still alive then to see the launch. We’re going to approach the sun to within about 6 million kilometers. It will be the first mission to a star.    

Did you know when you came here to study physics that you were going to end up building instruments that would go to space?

You’re surely joking. At that time the Space Age hadn’t even started, how could I know? All I knew was what I could see from my home island of Chios in the Aegean, when I looked up at night and saw the clear sky and was wondering about these planets, and what might be there. But imagining that I would participate in any exploration by humanity to these planets; that was beyond dreams.   

Thank you very much for speaking with me today.

Thank you for the invitation.