Release 27 of 1,159

Riccardo Giacconi, Visionary Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute

Release date: Dec 10, 2018 4:15 PM (EST)
Riccardo Giacconi, Visionary Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute

The worldwide astronomical community mourns the loss of Riccardo Giacconi, the first permanent director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland.

Release ID: STScI-2018-62
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Riccardo Giacconi
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Release date: Dec 10, 2018
Riccardo Giacconi, Visionary Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute

The worldwide astronomical community mourns the loss of Riccardo Giacconi, the first permanent director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland.

Under his leadership from 1981 to 1993, STScI developed the expertise and capabilities to direct the science mission of the Hubble Space Telescope. A visionary, Giacconi defined how the space observatory would serve the astronomical community through meticulous planning, scheduling, and archiving of observations. To accomplish this, he hired many of the world’s top scientists. Under his guidance and inspiration, the STScI team built the infrastructure needed for engaging the astronomical community in the science operations of the first major telescope in space. Giacconi’s leadership, insights, and unwavering perseverance changed the way all present-day space astrophysics missions conduct science. These efforts, collectively, laid the groundwork for the soon-to-be launched James Webb Space Telescope, which will be controlled from STScI.

“So many of the things that we take for granted today were the result of Riccardo’s efforts,” said Ken Sembach, current STScI director. “He believed strongly that science should be the driver, front and center, in developing and operating the systems, software, and hardware of observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope and the ESO Very Large Telescope. He challenged us all to maintain this focus and to think boldly so that astrophysics would continue to move forward. That challenge is as important today as ever. He will be missed but his legacy will endure for generations.”

Giacconi’s guidance was critical in meeting the needs of the worldwide astronomical community and the science goals of the Hubble program. This was exemplified in his pre-launch planning for Hubble science operations. Among the many innovative initiatives was the development of a digitized guide star catalog needed for pointing the telescope. After Hubble’s launch, Giacconi provided leadership in addressing a crippling optical flaw that was discovered in the space telescope’s primary mirror. Giacconi convened a strategy panel to explore options to optically compensate for the flaw and return the telescope to optimum performance. His innovative and creative thinking was critical to the development of a design that retrofitted Hubble’s first-generation instruments with corrective optics. This enabled the telescope to successfully carry out its mission of exploration.

Considered the “father of X-ray astronomy,” Giacconi’s early rocket-born experiments and, later, orbiting high-energy observatories opened a new window on scientific understanding of the universe. Whole new phenomena were revealed through X-ray observations, including black holes, neutron stars, quasars, and galaxy clusters. He was a co-recipient of the 2002 Nobel Prize in physics "for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources."

Giacconi was appointed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) as the first permanent director of STScI in September 1981, replacing Arthur Code of the University of Wisconsin, who held the interim position of STScI founding director. Located on the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus, STScI conducts the science operations of the Hubble Space Telescope, and will soon operate the James Webb Space Telescope. STScI also develops advanced astronomical data, archives, and tools for scientific discovery that are crucial in the era of increasingly large and complex astronomical datasets.

Shortly after his appointment at STScI, Giacconi reflected, "I'd like to see this place as a sieve, with people coming and going, with ideas flowing. Space Telescope is a terribly important resource. It goes beyond national boundaries. The limit is not observing time, but brains."

Giacconi stressed the importance of a first-rank scientific staff to lead many of the technical developments and respond to the challenges of running Hubble. The most eminent scientists in astronomy were attracted to STScI by Giacconi and have enabled it to excel in service to the astronomical user community.

Challenges under his leadership included developing tools for scheduling telescope time, building a data reduction system capable of analyzing data in real time, and constructing a data archive for the science community.

Giacconi once reflected, “We took responsibility for Hubble beyond the construction of glass and metal to turn it into an outstanding scientific tool.”

Thirty years ago—several years before the launch of Hubble Space Telescope—Giacconi challenged fellow astronomers to think about the next major mission beyond Hubble. Garth Illingworth, Giacconi’s deputy at the time and part of the group charged with thinking about that next mission, commented, “We were extremely lucky to have Riccardo’s continuing support and encouragement, and an extraordinarily talented and imaginative group of engineers and scientists at the Institute, who worked with us on many aspects of the concept development.” That mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, is now slated for launch in 2021.

Born in Genoa, Italy, Giacconi earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Milan. Prior to his appointment as STScI Director, Giacconi had gained world recognition as a pioneer in X-ray astronomy. A co-recipient of the 1987 Wolf Prize in Physics, Giacconi was cited for "…brilliant insights, technical inventiveness, and bold leadership in stimulating the growth of X-ray astronomy."

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Giacconi led the group of scientists at the American Science and Engineering, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts that was the first to make astronomical observations using the X-ray portion of the spectrum, thereby establishing X-ray astronomy as a significant field of astrophysical research. He obtained the first X-ray picture of the Sun in 1963.

In 1970, the UHURU satellite, conceived by Giacconi and developed under his direction, became the first orbiting X-ray observatory. UHURU provided the first X-ray map of the heavens and identified the diffuse X-ray background.

In 1973, Giacconi joined the faculty of Harvard University and became an Associate Director for the Center for Astrophysics, High Energy Astrophysics Division. He served as principal investigator during the concept, design, and fabrication of the Einstein Observatory. Giacconi established the scientific direction of the Observatory, prepared the software and hardware for data reduction and analysis, and implemented the Guest Observer Program. Einstein was used by more than 600 astronomers and reached a level of community involvement comparable to that at a major ground-based national center.

He was appointed the first permanent director of STScI in 1981. From 1981 to 1997, Giacconi was a professor in physics and astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore. Upon leaving STScI in 1993, he began a seven-year appointment as Director General of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Garching, Germany. In 1999, he was appointed president of Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), the consortium that co-administers the National Radio Astronomy Observatory with the National Science Foundation. Giacconi retired from AUI and was named University Professor at JHU in 2004. Most recently, he served as principal investigator for the Chandra Deep Field South project with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

In addition to his 2002 Nobel Prize in physics, some of his many honors and awards include:

• The Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1982), the highest award given by the RAS.

• The Wolf Prize in Physics (1987), considered the most prestigious award in that field after the Nobel Prize. It has gained a reputation for identifying future winners of the Nobel Prize.

• The NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal (1993) for his outstanding leadership in development of STScI. It is the highest honor that NASA confers on non-government individuals.

• The National Medal of Science (2003), the United States’ top scientific recognition, for his work in X-ray astronomy and his outstanding leadership in the development of the Institute.

• The Lifetime Achievement Award (2008) from the National Inventors Hall of Fame, an exclusive organization that also includes Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers among its members.

Giacconi authored many technical books on X-ray astronomy and wrote more than 150 articles on astrophysical topics. He even had an asteroid, 3371 Giacconi, named after him.