Science is known as ‘the glorious entertainment’, and for Professor Brian O’Brien there are few truer words. From Antarctic expeditions to cave exploration and studying moon dust his career is full of the most gloriously entertaining events and challenges.
Born in Sydney, Professor O’Brien did best at English, physics and maths at school and went on to complete his PhD in experimental cosmic ray physics from the University of Sydney in 1957.
Not bad for someone who had never even heard of a PhD before beginning university.
“In the aftermath of the Great Depression schooling was dedicated to helping young people get and keep jobs. I went to university to pursue life as a whole, and thought of becoming a teacher.
“However upon completing my Bachelor’s degree I met Professor Harry Messel, a man who I think is the best thing that ever happened to science in Australia. His passion for the pursuit of excellence was certainly something that rubbed off on me, and seems to have been passed on occasionally,” he says.
It was also during his time at the University of Sydney that he met his would-be wife Avril Searle in a cave.
“Following my PhD I moved to Melbourne to be closer to Avril, and became Deputy Chief Physicist of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions.
“I was lucky enough to travel to the Antarctic and see Auroras for the first time. The glorious ways they lit up the sky truly entranced me. Given my love of measuring cause and effect in a single experiment it became my goal to measure simultaneously the brightness of auroral light and the particles causing the light,” Professor O’Brien says.
For this he needed the measuring tools to sit on top of a satellite – good timing given America had just launched their first satellite. After writing to the man leading the team making the satellite, James Van Allen offered him a job as Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa.
“With experiments on US satellites Explorers 7, 12 and 14, I discovered a variety of interesting things. Then over four frantic months in 1961, with a handful of students and technicians, we built the 40 pound Injun 1 satellite and started discovering lovely stuff with total systems analyses of auroras.
“It simply was my Antarctic dream come true. Then in 1962 came the bigger and better Injun 3, after Injun 2 exploded,” Professor O’Brien says.
In 1963 it was time for the next challenge. On to Rice University where the first Department of Space Science had been set up, where students would include Buzz Aldrin and Gene Cernan.
“It was during this time that my experiment to measure charged particles on the lunar surface was one of seven automated studies chosen by NASA to be taken to the moon.
“I believed moon dust would be a major hazard to the astronauts and their equipment however there were no plans to measure this,” he says.
So Professor O’Brien’s dust detector was born as the eighth experiment. Firstly jotted on a coaster, and then refined on a napkin during a flight back from Houston in 1966. His 270g invention went on to be deployed by four Apollo missions providing data until 1976.
This was only the beginning of the moon dust story which was to get ever stranger. As Professor O’Brien had predicted, Apollo astronauts found dust was their number one environmental problem on the Moon.
“Quite astonishingly NASA revealed in 2006 they had misplaced the tapes of the dust measurements all those years ago. So I got together my copies and went back through the data to open the debate again.”
After Professor O'Brien published 14 peer-reviewed discoveries with the only measurements of lunar dust made to date, it was information from China’s Yutu spacecraft, the first lunar rover in 40 years, that further reignited the issue.
During its first lunar day in 2014 Yutu moved 100 metres, its six wheels leaving deep tracks in its wake. But for the next two years Yutu was immobilised, stuck in dust, although all electronic were working.
“Fifty years since my first fights with NASA regarding the impacts of moon dust, ground-truth measurements and analysis of them have finally become a priority. China has revised the objectives of its next lunar rover making it the first spacecraft where studying lunar surface dust is a priority.
“This is only the latest chapter in my weird and gloriously wonderful 50-year quest with the matchbox-sized experiments which have also taken Avril and me to many conferences in amazing places around the world,” Professor O’Brien says.
Still heavily involved in the moon dust debate, as well as other issues more concerned with the environment here on Earth, Professor O’Brien and his wife also have three children, nine grandchildren and Henry, his first great grandchild has just been born. Fair to say he’s a busy man.