• Honored this year by the Astronomy Society of the Pacific are, clockwise from top left, Caltech professor Gerry Neugebauer, the Caltech/JPL team that operates NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, Caltech alumnus and UC Berkeley professor Alex Filippenko, and Caltech postdoc Robert Quimby.
    Credit: Caltech-Astronomical Society of the Pacific-Caltech/JPL/NASA
  • A newly expanded image of the Helix nebula lends a festive touch to the fourth anniversary of the launch of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.
    Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ J. Hora (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA)
04/16/2010 07:00:00

Astronomical Society of the Pacific Honors Caltech Achievements

A constellation of Caltechers has been honored this week by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the world's largest general astronomy society. The ASP announced eight 2010 awards for "excellence in astronomy research and education," four of them recognizing people and programs affiliated with the Caltech community.

The honorees are Gerry Neugebauer, Caltech's Millikan Professor of Physics, Emeritus; Robert Quimby, a postdoctoral scholar in astronomy at Caltech; Alex Filippenko, the Goldman Distinguished Professor in the Physical Sciences at UC Berkeley and a Caltech alumnus; and the Spitzer Space Telescope team, based on the Caltech campus and at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. One of NASA's four "Great Observatories," the telescope is operated by Caltech and JPL on behalf of NASA.

The awards will be presented at the ASP awards banquet on August 3 in Boulder, Colorado, as part of the society's annual meeting.

Neugebauer, who joined the Institute faculty shortly after earning his Caltech PhD in 1960, is the recipient of the ASP's Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal for lifetime achievement in astronomy. The Caltech scientist is widely recognized as one of the pioneers in the field of infrared astronomy, working with colleagues to make the first infrared map of the galactic center, the first infrared survey of the sky, and leading the science team of the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), the first space-based telescope to survey the cosmos at infrared wavelengths.  

Quimby, who came to Caltech after earning his PhD at the University of Texas, was honored with the Robert J. Trumpler Award for his outstanding recent PhD thesis, which "led to improved understanding of the detonation process" in certain types of supernovae.He was also cited for his discovery of the "first 'pair instability supernova'—a phenomenon now thought to occur in very massive stars like those that formed at the end of the cosmological 'dark ages,' when the universe's first stars and galaxies condensed out of matter.

Filippenko, who received his PhD from Caltech in 1984, was presented with the Richard H. Emmons Award for excellence in the teaching of college-level introductory astronomy for non-science majors. Internationally known for his research on supernovas, gamma-ray bursts, black holes, quasars, and dark energy, Filippenko has received Berkeley's "best professor" award six times in his career, as well as numerous other national teaching honors, and has produced four astronomy video courses and coauthored an award-winning textbook.

The Spitzer Space Telescope Team received the Maria and Eric Muhlmann Award, which recognizes "recent significant observational results made possible by innovative advances in astronomical instrumentation and techniques." Launched in 2003 as a successor to IRAS, the telescope is carrying out the most detailed and comprehensive survey ever made of the infrared sky.

The team was cited for innovative engineering approaches, including "the extensive use of radiative cooling that extended the cryogenic lifetime of the telescope from the planned nominal mission of two and half years to nearly six before the liquid helium coolant was exhausted."

A newly expanded image of the Helix nebula lends a festive touch to the fourth anniversary of the launch of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ J. Hora (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA)

These technologies kept the telescope cooled to very low temperatures and shielded it from the heat of the sun and other extraneous infrared sources, including Earth and the telescope itself.  

In May 2009, the telescope's liquid coolant ran dry. Spitzer is now in the "warm"phase of its mission, continuing to return scientific data on two infrared channels that are able to operate without coolant.

Established in 1889, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific aims to increase the understanding and appreciation of astronomy by engaging scientists, educators, enthusiasts, and the public to advance science and science literacy through mission-based astronomy and space-science education and public outreach activities. Today, its membership comprises professional and amateur astronomers and educators from more than 70 countries. 

Written by Heidi Aspaturian