October 15, 1998
University Gazette


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Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Celebrates 25 Years

Borne heavenward by a combination of champagne toasts and the strains of cosmic compositions played by their musical colleagues, members of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) celebrated its 25th Anniversary on Observatory Hill, on Oct. 7.

Associate Director Robert Kirshner (cited this month by Boston magazine as one of the area's real-life "Nutty Professors") served as emcee for a program that honored founding director Professor George B. Field and current leader Professor Irwin I. Shapiro, as well as Professor Emeritus Fred L. Whipple, who was director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in 1973 when it joined with the Harvard College Observatory to create the CfA, then and now arguably the world's largest center for astronomical research. A sampling of highlights from an eventful quarter-century follow:

A Timeline of Highlights

1973: The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), a joint venture of the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), founded with George B. Field of Berkeley as first director. The first "CfA Preprints" published. "Coronal holes" on the Sun discovered by CfA instrument aboard Skylab. A "black hole" candidate identified in constellation Cygnus.

1974: SAO's "Standard Earth III" published. CfA's Women's Program established. Second black hole candidate seen in Circinus.

1975: Atmospheric ozone measurement program begins. First "Space for Women" conference explores science careers for high schoolers.

1976: Rocket experiment tests Einstein's gravitational redshift theory. Long-running CfA lectures on astronomy begin in Boston, Washington, and Arizona.

1977: Launch of Einstein Observatory, an orbiting x-ray telescope, ushers in new age of high-energy astrophysics.

1978: Minor Planet Center, the worldwide clearinghouse for asteroid discoveries, moves to Cambridge. First simultaneous optical and x-ray observations made of a "cosmic burster."

1979: George Field named chair of the Astronomical Survey Committee that will chart the course of American astronomy in 1990s. Lightning bolts seen on the night side of Jupiter. Meteorites retrieved from the Antarctic ice shelf. The Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT), an innovative instrument that will revolutionize optical telescope design, is dedicated in Arizona. CfA's Steven Weinberg wins Nobel Prize for Physics.

1980: CfA hosts first "Cool Stars, Stellar Systems, and the Sun" workshop. The age of the Universe is adjusted downward. X-rays from Jupiter seen, as is a bright fireball in the Jovian atmosphere.

1981: The landmark CfA Red Shift Survey of galaxies in the northern hemisphere completed. Radio tracking of water masers in Orion offers new cosmic distance measurement technique.

1982: "Astronomy for the 1980s," aka "The Field Report," published. SAO's Arizona field site renamed "Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory." Rapidly rotating x-ray pulsar found in a supernova remnant. Professor Irwin I. Shapiro of MIT named CfA director.

1985: The Infrared Telescope (IRT) flies aboard a space shuttle.

1986: CfA astronomers describe the large-scale structure of the cosmos as a "soap-bubble universe," in which galaxies are apparently distributed on the surfaces of thin sheets surrounding vast voids in space. Halley's Comet returns and space observations confirm Fred Whipple's "dirty snowball" concept of cometary structure.

1987: Supernova 1987A discovered -- the brightest exploding star seen in more than 400 years and the first detected early enough to allow detailed studies with modern astronomical instruments, including a host of CfA experiments. Theory suggests the Moon was created in a collision between Earth and another body. Apollo 15 lunar samples reveal new rock varieties. Project STAR (Science Teaching through its Astronomical Roots) initiates a series of innovative CfA programs aimed at improving science education.

1988: Observations at CfA's Oak Ridge Observatory in Harvard, Mass., provide first convincing evidence for a planet orbiting a star other than our own.

1989: Institute for Theoretical Atomic and Molecular Physics (ITAMP) established in Cambridge. NASA selects CfA to build and operate the Submillimeter Wave Astronomy Satellite (SWAS).

1990: The largest single coherent structure ever seen in nature -- a "great wall" of galaxies stretching across the sky -- is identified from CfA's three-dimensional map of the Universe. CfA serves as data center for the ROSAT X-ray satellite. CfA team at Whipple Observatory identifies the Crab Nebula as a source of gamma rays. Balloon-borne infrared spectrometer studies molecular constituents of Earth's upper atmosphere.

1991: NASA selects CfA to operate the international science center, which will receive, analyze, and store data from the Advanced X-ray Astrophysical Facility (AXAF) space observatory.

1992: A 6.5-meter-diameter glass blank intended to replace the six separate mirrors of the MMT was successfully cast. Ground-based detection of the most powerful gamma-ray object outside our galaxy made at Whipple Observatory. Measurement of "starspots" provides first direct evidence for a magnetic cycle on a star other than the Sun.

1993: Two small, expendable, tethered-satellite systems, conceived and designed by CfA scientists, are flown successfully.

1994: The CfA Redshift Survey is extended to the Southern Hemisphere, bringing the total number of galaxies mapped to more the 14,000.

1995: CfA astronomers produce the best evidence to date for existence of super-massive black holes. Ground broken for the Submillimeter Telescope Array near the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

1996: A new class of active galaxies discovered by gamma-ray astronomers at Whipple Observatory. A CfA-designed instrument aboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) satellite produces first images of Sun's extended atmosphere and detects both "fast" and "slow" solar winds. Unusual partnership between astrophysicists and medical specialists tests use of polarized xenon to improve MRI techniques. Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory provides unprecedented views of carbon atoms in our galaxy. CfA astronomer uses the Hubble Space Telescope to make the first direct image of the surface of a star other than the Sun. CfA selected as Flight Operations Center for AXAF.

1997: An entirely new kind of object -- an icy miniplanet -- found at the edge of the Solar System. And a giant, Jupiter-like planet is detected orbiting a star, bolstering the idea that such planets may be common. The "event horizon," a previously only theoretical region-of-no-return surrounding a black hole, is confirmed. The first individual ultraviolet images and spectra of the giant star Mira and its companion are obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope. Radio astronomers pinpoint the center of the Milky Way.

1998: The CfA celebrates 25 years of success with a ceremony honoring past and present directors and all of the people who have been, and will continue to be, part of it.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College