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Herbert Friedman

June 21, 2016

Herbert Friedman was hunting solar flares. At the time, in the 1950s, no one knew whether these explosions on the Sun produced X-rays or only less-powerful forms of energy. To find out, Friedman launched X-ray detectors on rockoons — balloons that carried rockets to high altitudes. If a solar flare was spotted, the rocket would fire and climb above the atmosphere, which blocks X-rays.

In June of 1956, one of the rockoons captured a flare’s X-ray flash, confirming the powerful nature of these outbursts.

It was one of many successful rocket experiments by Friedman, who was born in Brooklyn 100 years ago today. In 1940, he joined the Naval Research Laboratory, where he used X-rays to test various materials in the lab. He also developed a Geiger counter that sniffed out evidence of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear explosion.

In the 1950s, he turned his attention to the Sun, and became one of the first astronomers to use rockets to study the universe. He monitored our star with instruments carried aloft by small rockets that briefly climb above the atmosphere before falling back to Earth. He took the first X-ray picture of the Sun, and later developed the first Sun-watching satellite.

By then, he was also using rockets to explore the night sky. In 1964, for example, he watched as the Crab Nebula disappeared behind the Moon. The experiment showed that the entire nebula produced X-rays — the afterglow of an exploded star.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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