Tom Gehrels Honored For Service to Planetary Science

October 9, 2007
UA astronomer and planetary scientist Tom Gehrels at the 36-inch Spacewatch Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
(Photo: Lori Stiles, UA)
UA astronomer and planetary scientist Tom Gehrels at the 36-inch Spacewatch Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz. (Photo: Lori Stiles, UA)
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39th annual meeting, Division of Planetary Sciences 

Gehrels Named Winner of 2007 Masursky Prize
Oct. 8 - 12, 2007
Orlando, Fla.

An astronomer whose career spans the era of modern space exploration has been honored for his outstanding service to planetary science.

University of Arizona astronomer and planetary sciences Professor Tom Gehrels was named winner of the 2007 Harold Masursky Award given by the American Astronomical Society Division of Planetary Sciences at the organization's 39th annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., this week.

The Division of Planetary Sciences, known as DPS, said Gehrels' "visionary and tireless efforts in developing the Space Sciences Series of the University of Arizona Press changed the face of planetary science. He also edited many of the early volumes in the series, thereby setting the high standard of quality for which these books have become known." Gehrels was general editor for 30 volumes in the series, "which has served as de facto textbooks for generations of graduate students" and been an invaluable reference to planetary scientists, the citation reads.

"By linking each volume to a scientific meeting devoted to a general topic, Tom created an environment in which specialists could broaden their knowledge and contribute to cross-disciplinary discussion and debate. His tenacious personality helped to reinforce the revolutionary idea of collaborative authorship between rivals to produce balanced views of contentious issues." Gehrels also raised financial support to meet publication costs.

Gehrels is the 15th recipient of the award, which was given first to the late Carl Sagan in 1991. It was established to recognize individuals "who have rendered outstanding service to planetary science and exploration through engineering, managerial, programmatic or public service activities." Award candidates may be of any age or nationality.

Mildred Shapley Matthews, who collaborated with Gehrels in producing the Space Science Series, won the 1993 Masursky Award.

By the time Gehrels began undergraduate education in astronomy at Leiden University in his native country, the Netherlands, in 1948, he'd already survived early experiences that had a lot to do with shaping his "tenacious personality." Unlike his exceptional older brother, Gehrels survived the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II. As a teenager, he was active in the Dutch Resistance. When still a teenager, he escaped to England where he trained as a saboteur in the Special Operations Executive, then parachuted back into Holland in special operations linking the Allies to the Dutch Underground.

It was during Gehrels' four years in the Special Operations Executive in Europe and the Far East (1944-48) that he began forming a deep and lasting attachment to South Asia. His experiences produced "a liberated liberal, good for a scientist," Gehrels wrote in his autobiographical book, "On the Glassy Sea," (Amazon-BookSurge, 2007, originally published by the American Institute of Physics, 1988). He was drawn to astronomy because of his interest in origins, he also wrote.

Leiden University astronomy director Jan Henrik Oort was developing his new theory that comets originate far beyond the sun when Gehrels was an undergraduate. Gehrels chose to go to graduate school in the United States, selecting the University of Chicago. Nearby Yerkes Observatory at the time was staffed with many of the world's best astronomers, including Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who influenced Gehrels the most and inspired Gehrels to write "Survival Through Evolution, from Multiverse to Modern Society" (Amazon-BookSurge, 2007).

As a graduate student, Gehrels pioneered a photometric system for asteroids as his dissertation project, and the University of Chicago awarded him the doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics in 1956. Gehrels continued studying asteroids during his five-year post-doctoral fellowship at Indiana University, Bloomington. There he pioneered a new kind of tool, called the "photopolarimeter, " for studying the polarization of light at different wavelengths. Until then, observers had not viewed planets, stars and nebulae in polarized light at different wavelengths.

Gehrels moved to The University of Arizona in 1961, where he developed high-altitude balloon experiments for studying stars and planets and worked in the newly organized U.S. space program.

Gehrels' ballooning experience landed him a place as principal investigator for imaging photopolarimeter experiments on the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecrafts. The imaging photopolarimeters were daringly complex and successful telescopes that scanned the zodiacal light, Jupiter, Saturn and their systems from the spinning spacecraft, which were the first to fly past those planets in the 1970s.

Encouraged by Aden Meinel, founding director of Kitt Peak National Observatory and the UA Optical Sciences Center, Gehrels began planning a ground-based telescope dedicated to studying asteroids in the 1970s. The plan materialized as the pioneering asteroid-survey Spacewatch Telescope in 1983. Initially funded by NASA and the U.S. Air Force, the original 36-inch (0.9 meter) Spacewatch Telescope on Kitt Peak became the first full-scale automatic asteroid survey. Spacewatch, now directed by UA's Robert McMillan, also now employs a second, 72-inch (1.8 meter) telescope on Kitt Peak.

Gehrels' current research focuses on cosmology and universal evolution. His original paper on this topic is "The multiverse and the origin of our universe." Gehrels teaches a fall-semester course for non-science majors at The University of Arizona, "Universe and Humanity, Origin and Future." He also teaches in the spring semesters at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, India, where he is a lifetime Fellow.