Infrared astronomy pioneer opened a window to the skies
High atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea, the Frederick C. Gillett Gemini
Telescope probes the heavens, exposing fiery tempests in deceptively
tranquil skies. The observatory's infrared sensors reveal a panoply
of emerging stars and distant galaxies, ethereal landmarks otherwise
shrouded in a murky veil of dust and gas.
While the Gillett telescope scans the northern skies, its twin—known
simply as Gemini South—looks skyward from atop Cerro Pachón
in Chile. Each telescope has a main mirror more than 26 feet in
diameter; together they can scrutinize the entire celestial sphere.
University alumnus Fred Gillett (Physics '60, Ph.D. '66) helped
open this breathtaking window to the skies. An infrared astronomy
pioneer whose career spanned four decades, Gillett championed
the Gemini project and helped design its instrumentation. He died
in April 2001, shortly after work on the first telescope—then
known as Gemini North—was completed. The facility was renamed
in his honor last year.
At the University, Gillett studied under renowned physicist Ed
Ney. In the 1970s, Gillett and eight other scientists proposed
and developed NASA's groundbreaking Infrared Astronomy Satellite
(IRAS), a 24-inch telescope fitted with four different types of
While analyzing data sent back by IRAS after its launch in 1983,
Gillett and colleague George Aumann detected a ring of particles
around the star Vega. This discovery, known as the Vega Phenomenon,
was the first observational confirmation that planets could exist
around stars other than our sun.
For his work with IRAS, Gillett won NASA's Exceptional Scientific
Achievement Medal. Later in the 1980s he worked to develop the
space agency's infrared astronomy program and led a National Academy
of Sciences committee charged with setting scientific priorities
for the field. That effort led to the development of Gemini Observatory.
In November 2002, Gillett's family, friends, and colleagues gathered
in Hawaii for the ceremony to rename the facility.
"Our family is honored to have Fred recognized this way,"
said Gillett's widow, Marian. "The naming of the telescope,
which always looks up at the stars, just as Fred did all his life,
is a very appropriate way to remember him."