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Mason professor receives gold medal for work in radio science

September 22, 2017   /   by John Hollis

Dieter Bilitza (right) received the inaugural Karl Rawer Gold Medal from the International Union of Radio Science in appreciation for more than 30 years of groundbreaking work. Photo provided.

George Mason University’s Dieter Bilitza finally has a gold medal, even if it wasn’t the one he originally had in mind.

Now an accomplished professor in George Mason’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, Bilitza was a standout youth soccer player who dreamed of someday winning an Olympic gold medal for his native Germany. But he beamed with pride just the same when talking about the inaugural Karl Rawer Gold Medal he recently received in Montreal from the International Union of Radio Science as a token of appreciation for his more than 30 years of groundbreaking work in the field of radio science.

“I always wanted a gold medal, but I thought I would get it in sports,” he said, laughing. “But this is a great honor. It’s like a lifetime achievement.”

The Karl Rawer Gold Medal is a career award that goes to the scientist whose work leads to a better understanding of the ionosphere, the shell of electrons and electrically charged atoms and molecules that surround Earth as high as several hundred miles above the planet’s surface. The ionosphere largely exists due to the ionizing effect of ultraviolet radiation from the sun and plays a pivotal role in the propagation of radio waves to distant places on Earth, as well as in communications with orbiting satellites and the International Space Station.

“This is considered to be very important because it affects so many applications,” Bilitza said.

Bilitza, who also works with NASA at the Goddard Space Center in Maryland, has played a critical role in helping mankind better understand the ionosphere and its perpetual changes.

The International Reference Ionosphere (IRI), his data-based system that uses computer programs to help determine the temperatures and ionic composition of the different layers of the ionosphere, was officially recognized in 2004 by the International Standardization Organization as the official international standard for ionosphere.

His colleagues at Mason were quick to credit Bilitza for his significant scientific contributions that have enhanced the university’s standing within the broader space community.

“Dieter is very prominent in the space science community because he is the key person who led the development of the International Reference Ionosphere ionospheric model to its current state,” said Robert Meier, a professor of space science within Mason’s Physics and Astronomy Department. “It is the premier empirical ionospheric model being used in the international community and its high quality can be traced directly to Dieter’s initiative.”

Phil Richards, a research professor within Mason’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, echoed those comments, adding that Bilitza’s tenure at Mason has proven very beneficial to the university’s Space Weather Lab scientists who have “ready access to a scientist of Dr. Bilitza’s caliber. Since arriving at Mason in 2007, we have mutually benefited from our collaboration, which has led to improvements to both of our ionosphere models.”

The medal is named for German scientist Karl Rawer, who dedicated his professional life to the exploration of Earth’s ionosphere and inner magnetosphere, according to the International Union of Radio Science website.