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|Subject: Robert Wilson, Astrophysicist and Satellite's Advocate|
died September 2
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Date Posted: September 21, 2002 10:42:04 EDT
Sir Robert Wilson, a British astrophysicist who helped develop an early orbiting observatory that provided numerous insights into celestial bodies as humble as comets and as spectacular as supernovas, died on Sept. 2 in Chelmsford, England. He was 75. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Professor Wilson, an emeritus professor at University College London, was widely credited with helping to get the International Ultraviolet Explorer into orbit, interesting NASA in it after European space officials rejected it as too expensive. The satellite was put into a geosynchronous orbit, which allowed it to study the ultraviolet rays that do not make it through the earth's atmosphere.
The I.U.E. was launched on Jan. 26, 1978, with the expectation that it might remain productive for three to five years and send back images from within this galaxy.
Instead, the "little satellite that could," as it came to be known, lasted 18 1/2 years — working 24 hours a day for most of that time — and helped scientists understand phenomena in galaxies tens of millions of light-years away. When it was turned off in 1996, after five of the six gyroscopes that kept it in the right position were broken, it was still producing images.
Because it studied only invisible rays of the light spectrum, the Explorer did not produce the jaw-dropping photos that space buffs have come to expect from instruments like the Hubble telescope. But by scrutinizing ultraviolet light and generating spectral images of the subjects being studied, the satellite yielded important insights into the composition and behavior of stars and other objects. Some scientists said the images were more valuable than ordinary photographs.
"The spectral lines are like fingerprints that tell you unique things about what is making the object work," said Dr. Stuart Bowyer, an emeritus professor of astronomy at the University of California at Berkeley.
The European Space Agency, which developed the satellite with NASA and the British government, said the Explorer generated more than 100,000 images and led to the publication of thousands of scientific papers, more than any other satellite.
Scientists were especially excited about their ability to control the satellite in real time from two locations, in Maryland and Madrid. Among the events they looked at were a supernova in 1987, the visit of Halley's Comet in 1986 and the crash of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy into Jupiter in 1994.
For all its productivity, the I.U.E. had trouble getting off the ground. Professor Wilson and his colleagues began researching the project in 1964, 14 years before it was launched. But European space officials rejected it. It was not until Professor Wilson sold NASA officials on the idea that it received approval.
When the satellite was turned off, he sounded resigned.
"In the end, it was an administrative decision to end it," The Times Higher Education Supplement quoted him as saying. "It was the easiest area for them to save a little money. And it was ailing a bit."
Robert Wilson was born April 16, 1927, in County Durham. He earned his doctorate from Edinburgh University.
He is survived by his wife, Fiona; three children from a first marriage: Stephen, Scott and Victoria; and a brother, Warren.
Professor Wilson was knighted in 1989, the year after Ronald Reagan presented him with a Presidential Award for Design Excellence for his work on the satellite.
He was a professor of astronomy at University College London and later head of his department. Although he stepped down in the early 1990's and a retirement party was held, the university did not replace him for about a year, associates said. So he just kept working, much like the satellite he had fostered.
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