In Toledo, Ohio on June 26, 1914 -- a star was born. He was named Lyman Strong Spitzer, Jr. for good measure. An asteroid, a space telescope, and a building in the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) bear his name today. His theoretical and applied research contributions shaped three fields of science, namely, interstellar matter, the dynamics of star clusters, and the physics of plasmas.
Professor Spitzer conceived in 1951 the "stellarator" for magnetic confinement of a plasma in a twisted-tube configuration. The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory was in essence founded then to produce fusion energy of the stars. He was awarded in 1975 the first James Clerk Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics by the American Physical Society for "his pioneering investigations of the behavior of plasma" and guiding and inspiring "a generation of plasma physicists through his research and leadership in the controlled thermonuclear program."
Previously in 1946, Lyman Spitzer, Jr while at Yale University had written a classified paper "Astronomical Advantages of an Extra-Terrestrial Observatory" which explained the benefits of having a telescope in space. He worked on this vision until March 31, 1997. The launch of Orbiting Astronomical Observatory in 1968 meant a growing consensus to place a large telescope into orbit. Indeed 1975 was a good year because NASA, and the European Space Agency, started to develop what would become the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA awarded Spitzer in 1976 its Distinguished Public Service Medal for "his pioneering efforts in rocket and high altitude balloon astronomy, his outstanding contributions to space astronomy as principal investigator on the highly successful Orbiting Astronomical Observatory, Copernicus, and his vision and leadership in articulating the advantages and benefits to be realized from the Space Telescope Program." The Hubble Space Telescope, was delivered into space by the Space Shuttle in 1990. It still orbits the Earth today, at about 300 miles, providing first-of-a-kind images of the Universe and leading to advances in our understanding of it.
|Credit: Denise Applewhite, Princeton University|
Lyman Spitzer, Jr. is considered the founder of study of the interstellar medium where new stars are formed. He studied interstellar dust, magnetic fields, motions of star clusters, and star evolution. He predicted the existence of a hot galactic halo surrounding our Milky Way galaxy that you see below. This image from the Hubble's search for faint field stars in the galactic halo was seen by Dr. Spitzer in 1994.
J Bahcall, Institute for Advance Study, Princeton and NASA
It was the 400th birthday of Galileo on February 15, 2009. NASA then released images from the Hubble Space Telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope, and Chandra X-ray Observatory to more than 100 planetariums, museums, nature centers, and schools across the USA. We are observing the year 2009 as the International Year of Astronomy.
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope unlike Hubble, which images mostly in visible light, looks in infrared. While Hubble orbits our planet, Spitzer trails us at about 0.1 AU.* Below is an infrared image from it that shows three baby stars in the bustling center of our Milky Way galaxy. The three stars are the first to be discovered in the region. Spitzer was able to locate the newborns with its penetrating infrared eyes amongst the dust.
|Credit: S. V. Ramirez (NExScI/Caltech), D. An (IPAC/Caltech), K. Sellgren (OSU)|
Astronomers will continue to search for more and better understanding of stellar births at the center of the Milky Way. Can we even imagine today an International Year of Astronomy without the stellar contributions of Lyman Strong Spitzer, Jr.?
Spitzer was a theoretical physicist and an astronomer. His life was also distinguished by his politeness, scientific insight, and personal integrity. He stayed a Princeton University professor, researcher, and chairman of the Department of Astrophysical Sciences for more than three decades. He was in his office there analyzing results from the Hubble telescope even on the last day of his life.
*AU: Astronomical unit is the mean distance between the Earth and sun, or about 92,956,000 miles.
Sources: pppl.gov and nasa.gov.