Like a lot of boys of his era, young Robert Leighton learned how to take apart clocks and other mechanical devices. Unlike many boys, though, he also learned how to put them back together. That led to a career of inventing and building instruments for studying the universe — including the first cameras to photograph Mars from close range.
Leighton was born a century ago today, in Detroit. His parents soon split up, and he and his mother moved to Los Angeles. As he grew up, he bought a telescope and taught himself calculus.
He enrolled at Caltech in the 1930s, and during World War II he worked on rockets and missiles. After the war he earned his PhD in physics, then joined the Caltech faculty.
Leighton invented instruments for studying cosmic rays and the surface of the Sun. A discovery he made about the Sun led to a new branch of science: helioseismology — using sound waves to probe the Sun’s interior.
In the 1950s and ’60s, Leighton developed new cameras for photographing the planets. So when engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory began planning the first missions to Mars, they picked Leighton to build the cameras. Using Leighton’s design, Mariner 4 snapped the first close-range pictures of the Red Planet, in 1965.
Leighton then turned to a type of radio astronomy. He built large dish antennas for studying newly forming stars and other objects. Some of those dishes are still in use today — instruments that continue to probe the universe.
Script by Damond Benningfield