Lyman Spitzer II

StarDate: June 26, 2014

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When World War II ended, the U.S. Army asked a young astronomer and physicist, Lyman Spitzer, to study the possible scientific uses of orbiting satellites.

Spitzer, who was born 100 years ago today, proposed launching small telescopes to study the sky at ultraviolet wavelengths, which are blocked by Earth’s atmosphere.

He also proposed launching an optical telescope with a main mirror five to 10 meters in diameter. Free of Earth’s atmosphere, such a telescope would see far more clearly than any ground-based instrument.

At the time, the idea sounded like science fiction. The world’s largest telescope was still under construction in California. Its mirror would be five meters in diameter — at the small end of Spitzer’s proposal — yet would weigh 10 tons. The rockets of the day couldn’t lift such a heavy payload, and they couldn’t reach orbit.

Yet Spitzer helped convince both colleagues and politicians of a space telescope’s value. In 1972, he was lead scientist for a small ultraviolet space telescope. And he led a committee that outlined the Large Space Telescope, with a main mirror about half as big as he’d originally suggested. It was launched in 1990, and is known today as Hubble Space Telescope.

A few years after Spitzer’s death, NASA launched another large space telescope to study the infrared sky. It named that one for Lyman Spitzer — the man who’d championed space telescopes for half a century.

More tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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