Undergraduate Academic Affairs

Computer models to fly you to the moon*

Alumni e-News


Peter Norgaard

Peter Norgaard (‘04) teaching an undergraduate math class at Princeton, where he is earning his Ph.D. In 2008, Peter earned an Excellence in Teaching Award at Princeton.

Catching up with alum Peter Norgaard

Each year, thousands of UW undergraduates participate in research with faculty, bringing their classroom learning to life in new ways. As these undergraduate researchers graduate, they bring the critical thinking skills and creative problem solving they learned to graduate school or right into the workforce after commencement.

Research alumni: What are you doing now? How have your experiences as an undergraduate researcher impacted your current work? Tell us about it by emailing UAAalum@uw.edu and we’ll include it in the Alumnotes section of this e-newsletter.

For Undergraduate Academic Affairs and aeronautics and astronautics alum Peter Norgaard, ’04, research was an integral component of his undergraduate years. He conducted research as a NASA Space Grant and Mary Gates Research Scholar, presented in the Undergraduate Research Symposium multiple years, and was selected for a Goldwater Scholarship, a national scholarship for science-major students.

A Seattle-native, Peter found a research mentor and adviser in Professor Uri Shumlak and worked in Professor Shumlak’s plasma dynamics lab from the summer after his freshman year until he graduated. The lab is housed in the College of Engineering’s aeronautics and astronautics department.

All this experience paved the way for his current work as a Ph. D. candidate and Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellow at Princeton University. There, he studies numerical simulation of electric propulsion plasmas—computer modeling to simulate the actions inside a high-energy plasma space thruster. Peter explains that “plasma is what you get when a gas becomes so energetic that the colliding atoms knock electrons free, creating a mix of charged particles. This allows electromagnetic fields to be used to accelerate the plasma and achieve much greater thrust efficiency than chemical rockets.” and cites florescent lights, welding arcs, interstellar nebulae, and the sun as examples.

“It’s not computer science,” says Peter. “Rather, I study science and do it with a computer. Because you’re working with a model, you can do things that you couldn’t do in real life. You can turn off gravity, for example.” Conducting plasma physics experiments can be expensive and hazardous, or even impossible, so computer-based models are created to simulate an experiment and learn the impacts of various factors—like turning off gravity.

“Whether it’s a rocket or a jet engine, you can’t always stick in a probe or other diagnostic to figure out what’s going on,” he continues, so employing computational models via super computers can yield important insights into such things as fuel efficiency. For example, a 747 airplane will use tens of thousands of gallons of fuel to cross the Pacific Ocean. If, using computational models, researchers are able to figure out how to use 5% less fuel, the savings can add up significantly. Computational modeling is making major impacts in every area of science and technology, from engineering to biology, as well as other areas like economics and political science.

Peter examines more theoretical, fundamental, and philosophical questions related to computational modeling. He is studying how to write efficient computer programs that simulate the activity inside a high-energy plasma space thruster. Combining his understanding of plasma dynamics and computational modeling, Peter asks questions like “How do you derive a better algorithm to simulate the physics relevant to space propulsion? How do you develop algorithms that will run on hundreds or thousands of computers in parallel?” Applications of this work extend to fusion energy and fluid dynamics, which Peter has also worked on with various methods of computational modeling.

Peter NorgaardIn addition to his research, Peter has assisted in Princeton undergraduate and graduate mathematics courses. “I like sharing knowledge,” he says and teaching “gives me a lot of energy for my research work.”

Though he’s finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton, his graduate work brought him back to the UW to work with his undergraduate mentor, Professor Shumlak, at the UW’s Plasma Science Innovation Center. There he spent half a year studying plasma fusion devices and collaborating on code that he is currently modifying for application to plasma space propulsion.

Once he finishes his Ph.D., Peter plans to continue computational research in industry, a national lab, or at a university, though probably not in space propulsion. “Sending vehicles to Mars is fascinating,” he says, “but do I think it’s the most important thing for us to be doing right now? No. There are a lot of issues in energy, transportation, and climate change that need highly motivated and well-informed people. Increased energy security through new technologies that don’t rely on traditional fossil fuels is, in my opinion, critical to our nation’s future.”


*Editor’s note: We fact-checked this article with Peter to be sure we were accurately reporting on the science. Since we all liked the title of the article, we decided to keep it but wanted to be clear about the science. From Peter: “I like the title. Just as a note however, electric propulsion is not really practical for lunar travel…more interplanetary (Mars and Jupiter are popular destinations).”