Frederick L. Scarf, a theoretical physicist who played a major role with nearly every space agency in the world, has died in Moscow after collapsing last week during an international space meeting there.
Scarf, 57, chief scientist for space research and technology at TRW (Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge) in Redondo Beach, was widely regarded as the world’s leading expert in a field of profound importance to space research--the study of the plasma waves that move through the subatomic particles, gas and solar wind of the interplanetary medium.
Friends who were with him said he appeared to have been in perfect health before he collapsed at Moscow’s Space Research Institute on July 12. He was rushed to a Moscow hospital with what appeared to have been a brain tumor, although no official cause of death has been announced.
His wife, Mimi, of Sherman Oaks, flew to Moscow and was there when he died Sunday.
Scarf was in Moscow to help plan future missions in the Soviet space program, in which he had been involved for more than a decade. He was one of the lead scientists in the twin missions to the Martian moon of Phobos that the Soviet Union launched earlier this month, and he was to have played a similar role in that country’s ambitious exploration of Mars during the years ahead.
Scarf was also involved in several European programs, including the European Space Agency’s mission to Halley’s Comet three years ago, and he served in a key role with the Japanese space program. In addition, he was involved in numerous U.S. space projects, including serving as principal investigator for plasma wave experiments on Pioneers 8 and 9, Voyagers 1 and 2, and the Pioneer/Venus Orbiter.
As a scientist, Scarf came along at just the right moment, when the tools were first being put into space that could unlock secrets that had long puzzled physicists. Like the few others who understood his field, Scarf wondered what effect a celestial body like the Earth had on space as it moved through it.
He helped design the instruments that measured that effect, demonstrating something that many had theorized but none had been able to prove. As the Earth, or any other large body, moves through space it is preceded by a “bowshock,” a plasma wave pushed by the planet through space, just as the bow of a boat pushes through the water.
Detected by Antennas
The antennas that Scarf put on numerous spacecraft detected that effect. Electrically charged particles in space bombarded the craft, and the number of “hits” rose dramatically as the spacecraft passed through the wave of increasingly dense particles.
Scarf made a recording of the sounds the particles made as they hit the antennas. To almost anyone else, it sounded like static, rapidly changing in pitch and frequency as the spacecraft passed through the wave. But to Scarf, it was music, which he once described as sounding like a choir of birds.
As gregarious as he was scholarly, Scarf delighted in working his way around bureaucratic roadblocks. He was one of five U.S. scientists who continued working with the Soviet space program even after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was prohibited from direct participation. Scarf went to work part time for UCLA and used that academic tie to get a grant from NASA to continue his work with the Soviets.
He tried once to get NASA to donate an unused instrument to the Soviets so that he could continue his research with a Soviet spacecraft. When that failed, the European Space Agency supplied the instrument to the Soviets, and then signed up Scarf to help run it.
Get ‘Used’ Satellite
And when the United States decided not to send a spacecraft to Halley’s Comet, Scarf and a couple of colleagues came up with a bold idea. They bypassed several layers of bureaucracy in Washington to gain control of an orbiting research satellite that had already outlived its usefulness.
“We stole it,” Scarf gleefully told The Times then.
The satellite was sent off to rendezvous with the comet Giacobini-Zinner. It arrived there several months before an armada of Soviet, Japanese and European spacecraft reached Halley’s. And it proved that even a small body such as a comet sends out shock waves as it passes through space.
Had Scarf survived, he would have returned to Moscow next January when two Soviet spacecraft carrying his instruments fly through the bowshock of Mars. Because of his pioneering work, space plasma physicists around the world know what to expect.
In addition to his wife, Scarf is survived by four children.