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  • IR Astronomy Pioneer Dies
Jun 2009
TUCSON, Ariz., June 22, 2009 -- Infrared astronomy pioneer Frank J. Low died June 11, according to the University of Arizona, his employer since 1965. He was 75.

FrankLow.jpgLow was a solid-state physicist who became a leader in the new field of infrared astronomy after inventing the gallium-doped germanium bolometer in 1961.

After receiving his PhD from Rice University in 1959, Low developed a low temperature thermometer at Texas Instruments but realized that the device had much greater potential as an infrared bolometric detector. He moved to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to explore use of his bolometer in astronomy, observing at wavelengths too short to be accessed with radio receivers at that time.

"His influence on astronomy was so large that simply mentioning 'Frank' with no surname was sufficient for many years to identify him unambiguously among astronomers," the university said in a statement.

The 12-meter radio telescope still in operation on Kitt Peak was a product of this period. However, he quickly migrated into pioneering infrared astronomy, briefly at Rice but settling into the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona. There he carried out pioneering observations of planets, stars, galaxies, and quasars, including the discovery with graduate student Doug Kleinmann of the Kleinmann-Low Nebula, now known as the prototypical region of very early star formation.

To get above the absorption of long-wavelength infrared waves by the atmosphere, in 1969 he initiated airborne astronomy with a 12-inch telescope observing from a Lear jet. With this instrument, it was found that Jupiter and Saturn have stored great amounts of heat and consequently radiate substantially more energy than they receive from the sun. The phenomenal far infrared outputs of star forming regions and external galaxies were also discovered with the Lear Jet.

Low's influence on the field was expanded by his establishing a company, Infrared Laboratories, through which he supplied astronomers worldwide with state-of-the art instruments. However, operation from the ground and even from an airplane imposed severe limits on the new field of astronomy because of interference by the intense infrared emission of the telescope.

Together with Gerry Neugebauer, James Houck, and Fred Gillett, Low led the development of the instrumentation for the Infrared Astronomy Satellite (IRAS). Launched in 1983, IRAS was the first infrared astronomical observatory in space, where operation at very low temperature above all the atmospheric absorption allowed unprecedented sensitivity. Its all-sky survey in the middle and long wavelength infrared regimes is still a central resource for research, 26 years after the data were obtained. IRAS is widely recognized as one of the most successful NASA science missions.

At the same time, Low was named Facility Scientist on the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF), planned as a pointed observatory in space to study in detail individual sources discovered with IRAS. This mission stalled for many years because of funding shortfalls. In 1993, Low invented a new form for the telescope and its cooling that allowed a less expensive mission, leading to approval to build SIRTF in 1998.

Renamed Spitzer, this telescope has just completed its prime mission and, like IRAS, is one of the most successful NASA science programs. The new telescope design has made possible a family of larger infrared space telescopes, particularly the giant 6.5-meter aperture James Webb Telescope scheduled for launch in 2014.

Low was a Regents' Professor emeritus at the University of Arizona and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He received the Helen Warner Prize in 1968 (given to an outstanding young astronomer), the Rumford Prize in 1986 (for research on light or heat), the Joseph Weber Award in 2003 (for astronomical instrumentation), the Jansky Lectureship in 2006 (for contributions to radio astronomy), the Bruce medal in 2006 (for lifetime contributions to astronomy), and an exceptional public service medal from NASA in 2008.

Low is survived by Edith, his wife of 52 years; his three children and six grandchildren.

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A thermometric instrument used for the detection and measurement of radiant energy. Its essential component is a short narrow strip covered with a dead black absorbing coating and mounted at the lower end of a long cylindrical tube having a stop across it to exclude unwanted radiation. The electrical resistance of the strip changes with the changes in temperature that arise from absorbing varying amounts of radiant energy.
infrared astronomy
The study and the interpretation of the infrared emittances of celestial bodies and phenomena.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
An afocal optical device made up of lenses or mirrors, usually with a magnification greater than unity, that renders distant objects more distinct, by enlarging their images on the retina.
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