Jack Harvey has spent his life figuring out how the sun works, and he's got as good a handle as anyone on what is happening 93 million miles away on our nearest star.

This past week, Harvey was awarded the Arctowski Medal by the National Academy of Sciences for his lifelong contributions to solar astronomy. The award cites him for designing and operating an array of instruments and using them to uncover the structure and magnetic fields of the sun.

Harvey, who said he is proud of the work he and his colleagues have done at the National Solar Observatory, added there remains much that is unknown.

"In the 1860s and '70s, people thought the interior of the sun might be cool and that people lived there," Harvey said. "I wonder how quaint our ideas are going to look like 150 years from now."

Harvey, 70, came to the National Solar Observatory on Kitt Peak near Tucson in the 1960s while completing his thesis at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He took a full-time position at Kitt Peak in 1969 and began building a series of solar magnetographs.

Those instruments measure the sun's magnetic fields.

Data from them was used to establish the suspected correlation between those fields and sunspots, solar flares and the fiery eruptions called coronal mass ejections.

The sun's "weather" is of interest to solar physicists because it can create adverse conditions for space travelers, communications satellites and even electrical systems on Earth.

Harvey was raised in Los Angeles, where his father, a professional photographer, imbued him with a love for astronomy. He remembers a trip outside the city as a young boy to view a meteor shower. He was hooked. His father bought him a telescope and he built several others, grinding lenses in the family's kitchen.

When he graduated from high school, he asked for a job with a solar telescope being built by Honeywell in Burbank. He was hired, somewhat to his surprise, and he discovered the joy of doing daytime astronomy.

Harvey joined the National Solar Observatory in 1969 and led the team that developed GONG, the Global Oscillation Network Group. Six of the instruments are now spaced across the Earth. They bounce sound waves off the surface of the sun, revealing the "orange peel" texture of its surface as parts move toward the center and other parts move outward.

GONG has gathered solar-oscillation data continuously since 1995.

Harvey has also continued his work with magnetographs. He built the first one with solar astronomer Bill Livingston and installed it on Kitt Peak's McMath-Pierce Telescope. It was a 40-channel instrument, meaning it could look at 40 spots on the sun at once. It was later eclipsed with a 512-channel instrument.

The latest iteration, an entirely new instrument built for SOLIS - the Synoptic Optical Long-term Investigations of the Sun - keeps track of 2,048 sites.

Over three decades of continuous observation, data about the sun's magnetosphere has been used to test accepted theories about the structure of the sun and to create new ones.

The sun's behavior, its activity and its magnetic rotation are always changing, which makes the instruments invented at NSO and the data painstakingly compiled over decades a valuable resource and a check on future, more advanced instruments.

Solar research is changing. Much clearer pictures of the sun and a "fire-hose" stream of data are now being gathered by NASA's space-based Solar Dynamics Observatory, Harvey said.

When an ATST, an Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, is built in Hawaii, the NSO will cease its operations on Kitt Peak.

Harvey's projects, however, are slated to continue at other sites.

They allow a check on data gathered by the next-generation telescopes and can be reconfigured to help answer questions that weren't anticipated before the launch of space telescopes, said Harvey.

They also provide a fuller picture of the sun. The ATST will peer beneath the surface of the sun with greater resolution, but it will see only a small bit at a time.

Harvey is quick to point out that the instruments he designed and perfected were not his alone. There is a team at work at NSO headquarters, which shares space with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in a building on the University of Arizona campus. "I don't build them myself. That's too hard. I design them and fiddle with them."

Harvey is proud of his work, but he said he was surprised that he was chosen to join the "august company" of previous honorees who contributed breakthrough theories. Marcia Neugebauer, last year's recipient, was a scientist on several NASA missions and the first to measure solar wind and explain its characteristics.

Neugebauer said she was "surprised that I got the medal before (Harvey) did."

Neugebauer, a researcher with the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, said the back-to-back awards for Tucson astronomers "illustrates the high regard for the work in solar and helio-spheric that is done in our community by many people at both at the university and the National Solar Observatory."

Mark Giampapa, deputy director at NSO, said Harvey "exemplifies the characteristics of a modern astronomer, from designing and building new instruments, to making innovative observations with them to gain new insight on the mysteries of our nearest star."

The award comes with a $20,000 cash prize and $60,000 in research money that Harvey can direct. "I'd like to use the money to foster students - to encourage them to go into solar research. For me, it's been a great career," he said.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.