MIT scientists and engineers began preparations for space research with rockets and satellites soon after the founding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958. In 1959, members of the Rossi Cosmic Ray Group submitted proposals to NASA for exploratory satellite experiments to measure the interplanetary plasma and to search for high-energy cosmic gamma rays. Studies to support manned space flight were proposed by members of the Aero-Astro Department beginning in 1962. Inertial navigation and guidance were under development in the Instrumentation laboratory and experiments in space communications, radio and radar astronomy were underway at Lincoln Laboratory and the Research Laboratory of Electronics. The need to focus space research efforts and to provide more stable support became the subject of conversations between the Administrator of NASA, James Webb, and MIT President Julius Stratton in 1961. These led to a proposal for a Center for Space Research (CSR) submitted to NASA in April 1963. It was accepted, amazingly, only two months later in June 1963. A founder and the first director was Prof. John V. Harrington of the Electrical Engineering and Aero-Astro Departments.
CSR was initially located in two old buildings north of campus (N51-52). Its new home on the main campus, Building 37, was completed in 1967 and dedicated on April 25, 1968. Offices and laboratories on the fifth and sixth floors were occupied by the Cosmic Ray Group, and on the third and fourth floors by Aero-Astro groups including the Man-Vehicle Laboratory (MVL). A Planetary Astronomy Laboratory also found a home there. Gravitation and observational cosmology research was undertaken in Building 20. Researchers in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences have had a continuing strong role in CSR/MKI. Over the next decades, these and other groups associated with CSR/MKI have developed and executed space experiments on sounding rockets, balloons, satellites and manned space vehicles and also instruments for ground-based observatories.
The space in N51-52 was retained by CSR until about 1983 for the fabrication of space experiments. It is now occupied by the MIT Museum. In 1989, when engineering space was needed for the RXTE mission, space was rented in Kendall Square in Building NE80, which in 2012 is still being used as laboratory and office space. In 2004, the LIGO Gravitational wave research moved from Building 20 to NW17, and expanded in following years into NW22. In a December 1986 re-dedication, Building 37 was named after Ronald McNair, the MIT PhD graduate and scientist astronaut who died in the 1986 Shuttle Challenger accident.
The earliest research efforts of the center were in the fields of gamma-ray astronomy, X-ray astronomy, interplanetary plasma, humans in space, and radio-wave propagation in space. As the years passed, the astrophysics research in MKI grew to incorporate an array of programs including ground, balloon, and space based optical and far-IR astronomy, radio, gravitational waves, and theoretical studies. Some of these were already underway at MIT under the umbrella of other organizations, i.e., the Research Laboratory for Electronics, Center for Theoretical Physics, and the Departments of Mathematics and the Earth and Planetary Sciences. The organization thus evolved into a true center of astrophysics. A major refurbishment of the top floor of the McNair Building (37) in 2001 eliminated laboratories in favor of airy comfortable spaces for the integration of faculty and students. In 2004, a major endowment grant from the Kavli Foundation led to the renaming of the Center for Space Research (CSR); it became the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI).
During the early hardware-building years (circa 1964–1983), a subsidiary organization, the Laboratory for Space Experiments, existed to carry out hardware projects. After about 1983, these projects were directed by project managers reporting to the Associate Director. The projects were and are executed by an MKI staff consisting of a few professional engineers and technicians supplemented by additional personnel as needed for the project at hand. The end products of these efforts find themselves in space or at distant ground-based sites (e.g., in Chile or Australia) acquiring data sought by the proposing scientists.
Under MKI auspices other “laboratories”, of more or less independence and directed by individual faculty or senior research staff members, have carried out space-related research and development. These include the Man-Vehicle Laboratory (MVL), the CCD Laboratory, the Center for Theoretical Geo/Cosmo Plasma Physics, the Space Nanotechnology Laboratory, and the MIT LIGO Laboratory. MKI provides the MIT support for the Chandra X-ray Center, which is operated jointly by MIT and Harvard. Most MKI programs involve collaboration with other institutions, typically universities and NASA Centers. MKI-associated faculty and staff make extensive use of national observatories, both in space and ground-based, in their research.
An active formal Education and Outreach program was in place in the years 2000–2011. It carried out many projects in collaboration with MKI scientists both within and outside MIT to make space research and knowledge accessible to the outside community of all ages.
Below, we provide Scientific Milestones, Research Histories and partial historical staff listings. We also provide historical resource documents for download.
Founding of the Center for Space Research at MIT with a sustaining university research grant from NASA. The McNair Building (#37) was dedicated in 1968.
CSR scientists, led by visitor Minoru Oda and Prof. Hale Bradt, collaborate with the X-ray group at American Science and Engineering in a rocket experiment that determines the precise position of Sco X-1, the first X-ray star discovered by the AS&E group. The results lead to the identification of its rapidly fluctuating optical counterpart, a faint blue star of the 13th magnitude. This measurement was a milestone in the early development of X-ray astronomy.
Optical identification of Sco X-1. The rectangular regions (1’ x 2’) are the possible locations of the X-ray source, Sco X-1. The arrow marks a star with very unusual properties, which was proposed, correctly, to be the optical counterpart of Sco X-1. (Sandage, et al. 1966, Ap. J. Lett. 146, 316)
The Third Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO-3) was launched by NASA. It carried a gamma-ray experiment, fabricated at CSR under the leadership of William Kraushaar and George Clark, that first detected celestial gamma rays, which exhibited the expected concentration toward the Milky Way and also an isotropic component of unresolved extra-galactic sources. This mission was a prelude to a series of subsequent missions by other groups that revealed a sky rich in ultra-high-energy processes, both galactic and extragalactic.
Galactic latitude distribution of gamma rays. (Kraushaar, et al. 1972, ApJ 177, 341)
The Third Small Astronomy Satellite (SAS-3) is launched by NASA from the Italian platform off the coast of Kenya. It carries an X-ray observatory developed at CSR in a collaboration led by George Clark and including Hale Bradt, David Hearn, Walter Lewin, and Herbert Schnopper. Four years of observations, directed from a control room at CSR, yield precise measurements of the positions and properties of galactic and extra-galactic X-ray sources. Among the many discoveries, Lewin’s program for the study of X-ray bursts revealed the “Rapid Burster,” an accretion-powered X-ray binary star that has episodes of rapid-fire X-ray flares, several per minute, each flare emitted with peak power more than a thousand times the total power of the sun.
X-ray intensity of the Rapid Burster recorded by SAS-3 (Lewin, et al. 1976, ApJ Lett 207, 95)
A tiny imperfect ring of radio emission, only 3 arc seconds in diameter, is discovered by Jacqueline Hewitt and associates with the Very Large Array (VLA) of radio telescopes. The ring arises from the bending of electromagnetic radiation by gravitational fields as predicted by Einstein in his general theory of relativity in 1916. In this case, it is due to the imaging of the radio lobe of a distant quasar by a foreground galaxy. This was part of a larger project that increased the known examples of gravitationally lensed quasars and galaxies by an order of magnitude. MIT radio astronomers had been active in the field of gravitational lensing since its inception a decade earlier.
Einstein ring MG 1131+0456 obtained from the VLA at 8 GHz. (Chen & Hewitt 1993, Astron J 106, 1719)
With the insertion of the Magellan spacecraft in Venus orbit, systematic radar mapping of Earth’s planetary neighbor began under the leadership of the Principal Investigator, Professor Gordon Pettengill. Over the subsequent 4 years and 2 months, Magellan mapped 98% of the planet in radar backscatter at a resolution of 120–300 meters, while measuring surface heights at an accuracy of 10–50 meters (see figure), microwave emissivity at 2–5%, and the Venus gravity field with 700 km resolution and 2–3 milligals accuracy.
Venus topography from the Magellan radar altimeter, with contributions from the Pioneer Venus Orbiter radar mapper. (Image courtesy of the Magellan/NASA Science Team).
The age of precision cosmology dawns with publication by Rainer Weiss and colleagues of results from the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite. COBE provided overwhelming evidence in favor of the so-called ‘Big Bang’ picture of cosmic evolution, demonstrating that cosmic microwave background radiation is a thermal relic of the early Universe when it was a hot, dense gas before the stars and galaxies began to form.
Photon spectrum of the Cosmic Microwave Background (Courtesy of the COBE/NASA Science Team.)
The Astro-D (ASCA) satellite, a joint Japan-US mission, is launched, carrying the MIT CCD Laboratory’s Solid State Imaging Spectrometer (SIS), the first photon-counting X-ray CCD Camera ever flown. In the ensuing seven years of in-orbit operations, the SIS performed more than 3000 observations, resulting in more than 1000 publications in refereed astronomical journals. Targets included a wide variety of cosmic sources, including X-ray binaries, normal galaxies, clusters of galaxies, cataclysmic variables, supernova remnants, and AGNs. An excellent example of the power of the SIS was demonstrated by the line-resolved images of the Tycho supernova remnant (Hwang and Gotthelf 1996). The MIT effort on the SIS was led by George Ricker.
MIT and Caltech break ground for LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatories, beginning the world’s most sensitive direct search for gravitational waves, the space-time disturbances predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The MIT effort is led by Rainer Weiss.
The LIGO Observatory in Hanford, WA. (Credit: LIGO, Caltech, NSF)
The Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE), named after MIT’s Bruno Rossi, is launched. MKI provided the All Sky Monitor and the on-board data system. Its scientists provided post launch support during its 16-year life. KiloHertz oscillations in the X-ray flux from neutron stars and black holes were discovered with RXTE and were used to demonstrate that neutron stars spinning with millisecond periods get their rapid spin in accreting X-ray binaries. The ASM tracked the intensities of several hundred sources during its 16 years in orbit and located about 40 new transient sources of which ten are identified as black holes (or candidates). One of these is the “microquasar” GRS 1915+105, which exhibits a plethora of variability modes reflecting the interactions of the jet and the accretion disk. MKI scientists published many of the RXTE findings.
X-ray Doppler curve for a millisecond pulsar (a spinning neutron star), in an accreting binary star system. (Chakrabarty & Morgan 1998, Nature 394, 346)
The Chandra X-ray Observatory, one of NASA’s “Great Observatories”, is launched with two scientific instruments from MIT. One, the Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS), was developed in a collaboration between George Ricker and his group at MKI and the X-ray group at Penn State University. Among the earliest spectrally-resolved images of the thousands recorded by the ACIS is an X-ray image of Cassiopeia A, the 320 year-old nebular remnant of a giant star destroyed in a supernova explosion. The other instrument, the High-Energy Transmission Grating Spectrograph (HETG), was developed by Claude Canizares and his group with diffraction gratings from MKI’s Space Nanostructures Laboratory, led by Mark Schattenburg. The HETG provides high-resolution X-ray spectra of objects ranging from ordinary stars in our Galaxy to the most distant quasars.
Chandra image of Cassiopeia A (NASA/CXC/SAO)
The High Energy Transient Explorer-2 (HETE-2) is launched into a low background, equatorial orbit. Built and integrated at MIT, HETE-2 was the first satellite mission entirely devoted to the study of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). During its six year mission, HETE-2 accurately localized more than 100 GRBs, including the event which definitively established the GRB-Supernova connection, the first short-hard GRB with an optical afterglow, and more than two dozen X-ray flashes. The spacecraft and its complement of three instruments was operated by the MIT CCD Group from the same 4th floor laboratory as was the SAS-3 satellite 25 years earlier. Telemetry and tracking was provided by an automated, MIT-built network of 13 ground stations positioned around the globe, allowing alerts and localizations to be issued from Building 37 within 10-20 seconds of the burst occurrence. The HETE-2 effort was led by George Ricker.
MKI’s Plasma Experiment on the Voyager 2 spacecraft detects the termination shock of the solar wind, after a 30-year, 12-billion km journey. The instrument was developed under the direction of the late Herbert Bridge. It was one in a long series of experiments initiated by Bridge and Bruno Rossi in 1958 to explore the properties of the interplanetary plasma. Their first experiment was carried by a rocket launched in April of 1960. It discovered the boundary of the Earth’s magnetic field, and made the first direct measurements of the direction and energy of the solar wind. The MKI Voyager-2 instrument continues to operate today under the direction of John Richardson as it explores the heliosheath near the outer boundary of the solar magnetic field.
Heliosphere and bow shock of the sun. The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft are now (2012) in the “Heliosheath”, the outermost layer of the heliosphere where the solar wind of atomic particles is slowed by the pressure of interstellar gas. (NASA/JPL)
An innovative collaborative research between MIT and UCLA (Chang and Wu, Phys. Rev. E, 77, 045401(R), 2008) uncovers an entirely new method, rank-ordered multifractal analysis “ROMA”, to characterize the phenomenon of dynamic complexity/intermittent turbulence. ROMA describes the full complexity behavior in terms of a set of definitive functions of locally invariant rank-ordered scaling variables depicting the mixture of an infinite number of geometrical measures termed fractals (Mandelbrot, 1977). For example, the fluctuating behavior of the interacting current filaments depicting the solar wind turbulence as shown in the accompanying figure may be characterized by just two continuous functions of a single rank-ordered scaling variable. This research result was truly remarkable and represented a major breakthrough in the theory of turbulence that was totally unimaginable only a few years earlier.
Since the introduction of ROMA, this technique of analysis of intermittent fluctuations has been applied by researchers in space plasmas to nearly all regimes of the solar-terrestrial environment. A brief review of the applications of this method is contained in a recent peer-reviewed publication in the Journal of Nonlinear Processes of Geophysics (Chang et al., 17, 545, 2010). It was selected by the NSF magnetospheric physics program for inclusion in the annual congressional report as a major scientific advance.
Cross-sectional view of interacting coherent structures (current filaments) depicting solar wind turbulence from a large scale simulation of a compressible plasma in fluctuating magnetic fields perpendicular to the currents. Color indicates the magnitude and direction of the current (in and out of the paper). (Chang, Tam, and Wu 2004, Phys. Plasmas 11, 1287)
Note: We refer to our organization as CSR when describing earlier work and as MKI for later work.
A balloon program in millimeter wave (far-IR) astronomy was undertaken at MIT to study the cosmic microwave background, shortly after its discovery in 1964 (wei80a). These flights demonstrated the expected turnover of the blackbody spectrum (mue73). An attempt to measure the dipole moment of the angular distribution expected due to the sun’s motion with respect to a primeval radiation background failed due to foreground emission by galactic dust; a significant but unwanted discovery.
In November 1989 the COBE satellite (wei80b), an outcome of the MIT balloon and other similar programs, was launched to study the spectrum and anisotropy of the cosmic background radiation as well as to determine the diffuse infrared background from the universe. COBE, a joint project of NASA Goddard, MIT, Princeton, JPL and the University of California, was 25 years in the planning and execution. COBE made the definitive measurement of the CMB spectrum showing it to be a black body to a few parts in ten thousand; thereby establishing that the universe was able to maintain thermal equilibrium throughout the primeval explosion. (mat90). COBE also detected the intrinsic anisotropy of the radiation due to quantum fluctuations of the universe originating near the moment of creation. COBE was awarded the Gruber Prize for Cosmology in 2006 and the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2006. COBE was the first space mission in a sequence followed by WMAP and PLANCK to make precision measurements of the average properties of the early universe to enable careful modeling of cosmological dynamics and constituents.
The CMB observational program was initially supported by the Research Laboratory of Electronics. Then, beginning about 1974, it was supported by the Department of Physics for a few years. It joined the MKI enterprise in about 1977. The CMB observational program at MIT phased out at about the time of the COBE launch. As Prof. Rainer Weiss, the group leader, turned his entire attention to the LIGO program, the group’s scientists moved on and several became major players in CMB groups elsewhere. Theoretical work in CMB has been carried out at MKI in more recent years.
Past and present staff
The Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at MIT had long had active astronomical programs in solar-system planets and asteroids when the discovery and study of planets around other stars became feasible in the mid 1990s. MIT involvement in the field of exoplanets took a quantum leap with the hire of two faculty, one in Physics in 2006 (an optical observer) and the other in EAPS (a theorist) in 2007. In 2011, an electrical engineer and a theoretical physicist, both with interest in exoplanets, joined, respectively, the faculties of Aero-Astro and Physics departments. MKI faculty actively make use of data from the Kepler space mission and other observatories. Results include the discovery of orbits with large obliquities (win10), the nature of exoplanet atmospheres (sea10), and theoretical modeling of nonlinear tides in close binary systems (wei12). Conversations about a space mission, TESS, for searching out nearby exoplanets began in 2006 and have blossomed into a full proposal now (2012) being considered by NASA (ric10).
Past and present staff
The flourishing field of high-energy gamma ray astronomy began at MIT during the decade from 1957 to 1967 in a series of balloon and satellite experiments that culminated in the discovery of the galactic and extragalactic components of cosmic photons above 50 MeV.
Before 1930 it was generally believed that the primary cosmic radiation was high-energy photons in the gamma-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Then, in 1934, observations of the effects of the geomagnetic field on the intensity of cosmic rays proved that most of the primary radiation consists of positive charged particles. In 1947, direct observations of the primary radiation in balloon experiments demonstrated that the charged particles are, in fact, protons and the bare nuclei of the heavier elements. The question remained as to whether there was any detectable intensity of high-energy photons beyond the ultra-violet region of the spectrum. For gamma rays, a challenging upper limit was set in 1948 by the report of an MIT balloon experiment that set an upper limit of 1% on the ratio of photons above 4.5 GeV to the total number of primary cosmic rays (hul48).
The challenge was first tackled at MIT in several balloon experiments that failed to achieve a positive detection of cosmic gamma rays due to the overpowering presence of secondary gamma-rays generated by the interaction of cosmic rays with the residual atmosphere above the high attainable balloon altitudes. The balloon experiments did refine the upper limits of the cosmic gamma-ray flux, and tested the methods that would be used in the later experiments above the atmosphere (cli61).
Soon after the start of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, when satellites became available for scientific investigations, MIT proposed a satellite experiment to search for cosmic gamma rays. The result was Explorer 11, launched in April of 1961. The telescope, developed in the MIT Laboratory for Nuclear Science, was a combination of scintillation and Cerenkov detectors that gave a unique signature of electronic signals when a gamma ray was detected. From 141 hours of useful data culled from 7 months of orbital operation, 31 ‘gamma-ray signature’ events were found. However, the certain identification of the 31 events as cosmic in origin could not be achieved because there was no statistically certain evidence of a concentration of their arrival directions toward the Milky Way where the generation of gamma rays in collisions between cosmic-ray nuclei and interstellar matter was expected to be most abundant (kra65).
After the initial results from Explorer 11 were evaluated, a new proposal was submitted for a more capable gamma-ray telescope to be carried in the wheel compartment of an Orbiting Solar Observatory. The instrument was developed in collaboration with MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories. In the first launch in 1965 the OSO failed to achieve orbit. Meanwhile, an opportunity was seized to fly a backup model of the Explorer 11 telescope on an Orbiting Astronomical Observatory in 1966. That OAO suffered a catastrophic system failure immediately after launch. Finally, a new MIT gamma-ray telescope was successfully launched on OSO 3 in 1967. It recorded 161 gamma-ray signature events that showed the expected concentration of arrival directions of galactic gamma rays from the Milky Way and the existence of an isotropic component from unresolved extra-galactic sources (kra72).
The results from the OSO 3 experiment were the prelude to the series of ever more capable orbiting gamma-ray observatories developed by other groups in the US and Europe that have revealed a universe of ultra-high energy processes in well-resolved and identified galactic and extragalactic sources.
Beginning in 1997, the Italian-Dutch satellite Beppu-SAX localized several gamma bursts sufficiently rapidly to permit an identification of its fast fading optical counterpart. A research group at the Center for Space Research, known as the CCD Laboratory directed by George R. Ricker, led an international effort to orbit a satellite optimized to make more such identifications. It carried CCD X-ray “cameras” sensitive to the X-ray portion of the gamma-burst spectrum. Burst positions were distributed in near real time via the recently available internet. The satellite was built at low cost largely at CSR with student help. After a launch failure destroyed the satellite, the High Energy Transit Explorer, HETE-2 (2000-2006), was built and successfully launched (ric02). It measured more than 100 burst positions that led to over 30 optical identifications, including that of a short GRB, demonstrating its origin in the merger of two neutron stars or a black hole and neutron star (vil05).
Past and present staff
The concept of using lasers to sense the motion of free test masses to detect gravitational radiation came to Rainer Weiss of then RLE in connection with a general-relativity course problem set. He analyzed the experimental challenges in a 1972 RLE internal report (wei72), and his group started to build prototype instruments and to explore the extrapolation to full-scale gravitational wave detectors with sufficient sensitivity to see signals from astrophysical sources. The RLE internal report launched groups around the world in interferometric methods of detection, and gave a roadmap for conquering technical challenges still relevant today.
After prototype studies in a range of laboratories and an engineering study at Stone and Webster, a proposal was made to the NSF for two observatories in the US. In July 1994, Caltech and MIT broke ground for LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatories, beginning the world’s most sensitive direct search for gravitational waves, the space-time disturbances predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity in 1916. Two sites, at Hanford, WA, and Livingston, LA, now have operational interferometers, each with two perpendicular arms 4-km long within which laser beams travel. First operation was in 2001 and, by 2007, observations had been carried out which, together with data from the Virgo gravitational-wave observatory in Italy, put useful astrophysical upper limits on 100-solar-mass black hole mergers to a distance of 200 Mpc (aba12a) and, by 2010, to 40 Mpc for neutron-star/neutron-star coalescences (aba12b).
A major upgrade at the two sites (Advanced LIGO) was completed in 2015. After a period of commissioning, the instruments undertook the first observing run ‘O1’ from September 2015 to January 2016. This led to the first direct observation of the gravitational-wave stain, and also made the first confirmation of black holes of roughly 30 solar masses, and also observed a coalescing binary of black holes creating a new black hole.
The sensitivity when fully commissioned will allow a search for 100 solar-mass black-hole/black-hole mergers to several Gpc and make possible a survey of the continuous wave gravitational radiation by pulsars in our galaxy to astrophysically interesting levels of pulsar non-sphericity. The detectors will be used in a search for stochastic gravitational wave background analogous to the cosmic background radiation arising either from the primeval universe or from many unresolved local sources. The next decade will see a network of interferometric gravitational wave detectors operating around the world (Germany, India, Italy, Japan, United States). The network allows gravitational wave sources to be localized well enough to engage observations by electromagnetic astronomy; coupling the gravitational wave sky to the gamma ray, X-ray, optical, infrared and radio skies.
Past and present staff
The quantum nature of light (photons) poses a limit to the sensitivity achievable by gravitational wave detectors of LIGO and other instruments around the world. The MKI Quantum Measurement group, founded in 2002 and led by Prof. Nergis Mavalvala, developed specialized theoretical methods to understand the limitations due to quantum effects (cor05, cor06), and carried out experiments in quantum optics (goda08) and optomechanics (cor07a, cor07b, aba09) aimed at improving the performance of future gravitational wave detectors.
Past and Present Staff
From its very beginning, the CSR was involved in the challenges of human space flight. The Man-Vehicle Laboratory (MVL) was founded in 1962 by Profs. Y. T. Li and Larry Young of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics and directed by Young until 1992 when Dr. Charles M. Oman was appointed to the position. It was supported by NASA to study human spatial orientation – both in flight simulators and in orbital flight. It installed a moving base flight simulator and hybrid (analog and digital) computer on the ground floor when Building 37 opened, and went on to develop posture test devices now widely used clinically for patients with balance disorders. Following early analysis work for Apollo, it grew into a major center for bioastronautics in the Space Shuttle era. In 1976 it was chosen to fly human balance studies on the Spacelab 1, for which it also supplied America’s first Payload Specialist (you 84). Working with Canadian colleagues from McGill and from the DCIEM in Toronto, CSR researchers went on to study etiology of space sickness, human visual, vestibular and movement issues on 7 more flights – Spacelabs D-1, IML-1, IML-2, SLS-1, SLS-2, Neurolab and STS-95 (Senator Glenn’s second flight) (oma 86). All of the flight equipment was designed and built at LSE. It all worked flawlessly and was a model in the Life Sciences for “home built” space instruments. In the late 90s, CSR-LSE also developed a suite of virtual reality hardware for the ISS Human Research Facility. With the establishment of MKI, the space and aviation experiments of the MVL continued at a high level of activity, but, since 2005, under the auspices of the Aero-Astro Department.
The MVL has provided a research home for astronauts, starting with America’s first payload specialist (Byron Lichtenberg), mission specialists (Steve Robinson, Dan Burbank and Jeff Hoffman, who returned as a faculty member) and alternate payload specialist (Lawrence Young) It remains attractive to graduate students anxious to fly in space.
Past and present staff
The solar wind is a plasma consisting mostly of ionized hydrogen and helium flowing continuously outward from the sun’s corona. Indirect evidence for its existence had been seen in its effects in earth’s aurora, on the deflection of comet tails, and more directly in an early Russian experiment. In 1958, Bruno Rossi initiated a program at MIT for the study of the interplanetary plasma through the development of a unique Faraday cup “plasma probe” at the Laboratory of Nuclear Science. It was first flown in March 1961 on NASA’s Explorer 10 satellite. It made the first in situ measurement of the direction and energy of the solar wind and revealed for the first time the boundary of the geomagnetic field where the solar wind is deflected past the earth (bon63).
Subsequent MIT experiments (on Mariner V, Mariner 10, IMP-8, Wind, Voyager 1 and 2) developed at CSR/MKI have explored the plasma environments of all the planets from Mercury to Neptune. The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft carry MIT plasma probes and continue to explore the solar wind in the outer heliosphere (laz95). These spacecraft, launched in 1977, are currently approaching the boundary of the heliosphere and are expected to yield the first in situ information about the interstellar plasma when they pass the heliopause boundary.
On the engineering side, the Sunblazer spacecraft (John Harrington, PI) was developed at LSE in the late 1960s to probe the solar corona with radio waves. The program was cancelled before the first flight. Other engineering contributions by CSR/MKI include an experiment on Apollo 17 to measure the Surface Electrical Properties (SEP) of the lunar sub-surface, the proton telescope instrument (PROTEL) on the CRRES satellite, and the cosmic-ray CRaTER experiment on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Past and present staff
The program in optical astronomy at CSR arose from the interest of its X-ray astronomers in finding and studying the optical counterparts of X-ray sources. The impetus for this work was the 1975 launch of the SAS-3 X-ray observatory which pinpointed the locations of many dozens of Galactic X-ray binaries and led to the identifications of the optical counterparts of a number of these sources. As part of the preparation for the launch of SAS-3, MIT joined with the University of Michigan and Dartmouth College in moving a U. Mich. 1.3-m telescope from the cloudy skies of Michigan to the clear Arizona skies at the Southwest ridge of Kitt Peak with funding from McGraw-Hill. The site was known as the MDM Observatory, after the three universities. These universities, together with the NSF, later provided additional funds for the construction of a 2.4-m telescope, which went into operation in about 1985.
In the early years, both the McGraw-Hill 1.3m telescope and the 2.4-m Hiltner telescope were used by MIT astronomers to continue to identify X-ray sources and to engage in detailed studies of these sources, both Galactic (mcc81) and extragalactic (can78)(rem86). Studies of gravitational lenses (sch97) and comets (jew89) and asteroids (luu88) were among the fields supported at MDM. The “orthogonal transfer CCD” (ton97), developed at MIT, was first tested at MDM. These telescopes additionally provided the springboard for researchers from MIT to compete for NSF grant funding for optical studies with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and large telescopes at the U.S. national observatories. Developments by MIT researchers from such facilities include the surface brightness fluctuation method of determining galaxy distances (ton91), probes of intergalactic space via absorption in QSO spectra (ste94), and searches for “SLACS” gravitational lensing (bol04).
In 1997, MIT sold its interest in MDM and joined the Magellan project, which now consists of dual 6.5-m telescopes under the exceptionally clear skies of Las Campanas, Chile. The first (Baade) began science operations in 2001 and the second (Clay) in 2002. Operating funds have been provided by the Dean of Science from his endowment. Beginning in about 2012, they will come from the Kavli endowment, administered by MKI. The MIT portion of the observing time on the Magellan telescopes serves scientists at MKI, the Department of Physics, and the Department of Earth and Planetary Science. MKI staff has made major contributions to the instrumentation of the Magellan telescopes, namely the FIRE infrared spectrometer (sim11), MagIC instant camera (osi01) and the MagE Echellette spectrograph (mar08)
Past and present staff
The major planetary program supported by CSR in the 1980’s and early 1990’s was the Magellan Venus Radar Mapping Orbiter (pet92). It was a roughly $750M program run out of JPL and launched in 1989. Magellan carried a single science instrument, a Synthetic Aperture Radar Mapper that secured 100- to 200-m-resolution radar images of over 90% of the Venus surface by the time mapping ended in 1992. The Principal Investigator was Gordon Pettengill. This mission also determined the topography and emissivity of nearly the entire planetary surface from data processed at MKI (for92).
In 1992, NASA founded the Planetary Data System with a Central Node located at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a set of Discipline Nodes at other sites. The Center housed that part of the Geosciences Node devoted to microwave remote sensing. The MKI sub-node was directed by Peter Ford and served the planetary science community from 1993–2001.
MKI scientists also participated in the Mars Global Surveyor mission: Gordon Pettengill was a co-investigator on the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter instrument, for which Maria Zuber (MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science) was the deputy PI. The MKI participants took the lead in examining evidence for CO2 clouds in the Martian polar night. (pet00)
Past and present staff
Radio Astronomy’s roots at MIT began with its wartime Radiation Laboratory, where a number of physicists laid the groundwork for the techniques that would be used in the years immediately following the war. The first serious attempt to measure the radio background was carried out by Bob Dicke (later at Princeton) and Bob Kyhl (later an EE professor at MIT) on the roof of Building 20, setting an upper limit of 18 K on what would be the 3 K cosmic microwave background. Other important later actors at MIT would be Taffy Bowen (later founder of CSIRO Radiophysics at Sydney), Ed Purcell (later at Harvard, discoverer of the 21 cm hydrogen line), and Richard Twiss (later at Manchester, co-inventor of the Hanbury Brown-Twiss correlation interferometer). At MIT, Al Hill, Jerry Wiesner, and Woody Strandberg were effective encouragers of radio astronomy at MIT.
A footnote: In early 1951, about the time when Ewen and Purcell discovered the 21 cm H-line, Al Hill met Taffy Bowen in Washington, who told him about the exciting developments in radio astronomy. Al invited him to give three lectures at MIT, hoping that RLE might develop a radio astronomy program. That did not happen, but an MIT physics graduate student, Bernard Burke, in the audience did listen. He would later become a radio astronomer on the MIT faculty.
Real activity at MIT started in 1960 when Charles Townes, the Provost, brought his former Student Alan Barrett to MIT who joined the Research Laoratory of Electronics. Lincoln Laboratory had started building the Haystack Radio Observatory, adapted for Radio Astronomy with the help and backing of Al Hill and Jerry Wiesner. Al Barrett solved the mystery of the high temperature of Venus with his model for the effect of an atmosphere largely of carbon dioxide and water vapor (bar61). He led the team at the Haystack Observatory that discovered the interstellar OH lines at 18 cm (wei 63). Bernard Burke joined the RLE group in 1965, introducing interferometric methods that, under MIT leadership, showed that the angular sizes of the OH sources were so small that they could not be thermally excited and had to be naturally occurring masers (bur70). The inteferometry work led, in 1967, to the development of Very-Long-Baseline interferometry (VLBI) jointly with a team at the NRAO.
The MIT group was closely involved with the development of the Very Large Array (VLA), the NRAO installation in New Mexico. With this instrument, MIT radio astronomers became active in the study of gravitational lenses immediately after its 1979 onset (rob79). Continuing studies in the field led to a determination of the Hubble constant (rob91) and the discovery of an Einstein ring in 1988 (hew88), in which the gravitational field of a foreground galaxy acts as a lens to turn the radio lobe of a distant quasar into a circular image. This was part of a larger project that increased the known examples of gravitationally lensed quasars and galaxies by an order of magnitude.
As the work on VLBI progressed, Burke recognized that the method could be extended into space, by launching VLBI stations into orbits that could extend baselines far beyond the size of the Earth. At this point, the radio astronomy work began a gradual transition from RLE to the Space Center. With the refurbishment of the McNair Building spaces in 2001, the radio astronomers moved into it, and now they obtain their logistic support from MKI. In 2011, an international collaboration of many organizations with the Russian Space Agency successfully launched the Radioastron mission. This VLBI station, in an orbit reaching nearly to the distance of the moon, extends angular resolution into the micro-arcsecond range, more than an order of magnitude better than hitherto possible.
More recently, the MKI group initiated a low-frequency project, the Murchinson Wide Field Array (MWA) in Western Australia. It will make a hydrogen-line study of the Epoch of Reionization and carry out a sensitive survey of the dynamic radio sky. It is being built by an international collaboration between the US, Australia, and India.
Past and present staff
Work in theoretical astrophysics at MIT began in 1964 when the Department of Physics hired Philip Morrison who had a broad array of interests and Icko Iben, a pioneer in stellar evolution. In the 1970’s theoretical studies of binary X-ray sources and X-ray bursts followed from the results of the X-ray observatory, SAS-3 and later X-ray missions. In 1980, the department hired Alan Guth, the “inventor” of inflation in the early universe, and in 1981, three other young theorists in an aggressive move to solidify the field at MIT. In subsequent years, the theoretical efforts at MIT gradually expanded and, over time, probed a wide range of topics from cosmology to exoplanets. The result has been a plethora of rich theoretical results in astrophysics. This work was supported in large part by the Center for Theoretical Physics, but also by the Departments of Mathematics and Earth and Planetary Sciences. From the beginning, the theorists participated actively in the intellectual life of CSR/MKI. Since the refurbishment of the McNair Building in 2001, most of the theoretical staff have their offices there and much of their research is supported by MKI.
Past and present staff
Research activities of the theoretical geo/cosmo plasma physics group led by Tom Chang at CSR since 1979 received a timely boost from the federal government when it was selected through keen national competition as a designated Center of Excellence via the University Research Initiative program of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research in 1985. The mandate of the Center was to conduct pioneering basic research in the fields of turbulence, charged particle acceleration, and complexity phenomena in the space environment. Simultaneously, the Center was supported by complementary grants from the Space Physics Theory Program of NASA and the heliospheric, magnetospheric and ionospheric programs of NSF. Hannes Alfvén, Nobel Laureate for Physics in 1970, was an honorary founding member of the Center.
Notable pioneering research contributions of the Center include:
The Center regularly conducted workshops and symposia on subjects relevant to the theoretical development of the dynamics of the space environment. Invited “Alfvén Lectures” were delivered by external luminaries at such gatherings. The Center also hosted numerous visitors and scholars in the field of theoretical geo/cosmo plasma processes.
Past and present staff
In 1959, Bruno Rossi recognized the opportunity for opening an X-ray “window” on the cosmos that was provided by the new availability of space vehicles. With members of the MIT Cosmic Ray Group fully occupied with projects in air shower research, gamma-ray astronomy, and interplanetary plasma research, Rossi turned for implementation of his idea to American Science and Engineering, Inc. (AS&E), a private research company founded in 1957 by a former graduate student of his. Rossi’s idea received enthusiastic support at the company. This led to the discovery by scientists at AS&E of the first X-ray star, Sco X-1, in a 1962 rocket experiment sponsored by the US Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory (gia62).
The discovery of Sco X-1 sparked a world-wide interest and activity in X-ray astronomy. MIT soon had its own balloon and sounding rocket programs in X-ray astronomy. The first balloon-borne X-ray observations, carried out in 1964, demonstrated that the spectrum of the Crab Nebula extends beyond 20 keV (cla65). Among the results of subsequent balloon experiments launched from Texas and Australia was the discovery of the first rapid fluctuation of an X-ray source, a 10-minute flare from Sco X-1 (lew68). The rocket program began with an experiment carried out in collaboration with AS&E in 1966 to refine the position of Sco X-1. The CSR group proposed to AS&E a multi-grid modulation collimator that enabled arc-minute precision in the position measurement (gur66), which resulted in the identification of Sco X-1 with a peculiar rapidly fluctuating blue star later understood to be an accretion powered X-ray binary. CSR initiated its own sounding rocket program in 1967. Results included additional localizations of X-ray sources and the co-discovery of periodic 30-millisecond X-ray pulsations from the Crab pulsar (bra69). The sounding rocket and balloon programs continued into the 1970s. After a hiatus of nearly 40 years, the program is being revived at MKI with the expected launch, in 2013, of Micro-X, a microcalorimeter spectrometer (fig09).
Sounding rockets provide only minutes of X-ray observations above the absorbing atmosphere, and balloons only several hours near the top the atmosphere. Satellites are essential for providing the long-duration observations required for refined studies of the multitude of galactic and extra-galactic X-ray sources that populate the sky. Numerous X-ray experiments have been carried out on satellites by CSR/MKI scientists and engineers. MKI X-ray instruments have flown on nine missions beginning in 1971 and continuing at least through 2012: OSO-7, SAS-3, HEAO-1, Einstein, ASCA, RXTE, Chandra, HETE-2, and Suzaku. The scientific accomplishments of these missions constitute a substantial portion of MKI history. They are briefly presented, with references, in the next section.
Past and present staff
The Orbiting Solar Observatory 7 carried in one of its “wheel” sections a mechanically collimated multi-chamber proportional counter developed at CSR. It surveyed the sky in four energy bands from 1 to 20 keV. Among the results was a “multi-color” catalog of galactic X-ray source (mar79).
NASA’s Third Small Astronomy Satellite 3 (SAS-3, 1975–79) was an X-ray observatory with a system of X-ray detectors developed at CSR. Its orbit-by-orbit operations were planned and directed at CSR through a direct connection to the operations center at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Among the results described in more than 50 publications were precise positions of numerous X-ray sources, making possible identifications of their optical counterparts, e.g., the X-ray/optical nova, A 0620-00 (bol76), Be stars (bra77), x-ay bursts and a pulsar (mcc77), the Seyfert galaxy 3C120 (sch77) and the magnetic white dwarf binary AM Her (hea76). Also reported were detailed studies of the dynamical and spectral properties of X-ray binaries, e.g., 4U 0900–40 (rap76), discovery and characterization of numerous X-ray burst sources including the remarkable “Rapid Burster” (lew76), discovery of the optical flashes associated with an X-ray burst source (gri78) and the first quasar discovered by its X-ray emission (ric78).
Two of the instruments for the High Energy Astronomy Observatory 1 (1977–79), were developed in collaborations between CSR and other institutions. A “modulation collimator” experiment was a joint experiment of CSR and Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics. The experiment pinpointed the locations of dozens of X-ray sources to ~1 arc minute precision, which led to many subsequent optical identifications of atypical objects (bra83), e.g., the cataclysmic variable BY Cam (rem86). The other experiment, sensitive to high energy X rays, was carried out in collaboration with the University of California at San Diego. It yielded a catalog of more than 40 high-energy sources (lev84) and important features of many, such as cyclotron absorption lines and a precessing accretion disk.
The Einstein Observatory was the second of the HEAO series of very large high-energy space observatories. It employed the first image-forming grazing-incidence X-ray optics for extra-solar X-ray astronomy and revolutionized the field of X-ray astronomy. The mission was led by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. CSR provided the Bragg Focal Plane Crystal Spectrometer (can80), which was one of the four focal-plane instruments. It’s high spectral resolution made possible the analysis of the chemical contents and physical states of the high-temperature plasmas in the wide variety of X-ray sources, e.g., supernova remnants (can81) and active galactic nuclei (can82).
After the end of the Einstein mission in 1981, there was a long pause in NASA X-ray missions as other astronomical disciplines initiated observations from space. MIT X-ray astronomers pursued their research in collaboration with international partners in studies with the European (e.g. EXOSAT), and Japanese (e.g. Ginga) orbiting X-ray observatories. During this period, George Ricker’s CCD Laboratory, in collaboration with MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, developed CCD imaging spectrometers for the Japanese observatories ASCA (1993) and more recently Suzaku (2005).
The Rossi X-Ray Timing Explorer (1995–2012) was designed to investigate the nature and astrophysics of cosmic X-ray sources through observations of the temporal variability of X-ray luminosities on time scales from as short as milliseconds to as long as years (bra93). MKI scientists played a major role in bringing the mission to fruition, beginning in 1974, and provided an All Sky Monitor (ASM) instrument (lev96) and the on-board data processing system (EDS). The ASM located about 40 new X-ray transients, and ten of these were identified as binary star systems containing a black hole. It tracked the intensities of several hundred sources over the 16-year lifetime of the mission. The EDS supported both the ASM and the PCA, a large area instrument used extensively by MKI scientists. The PCA uncovered a rich world of temporal phenomena in both neutron star and black hole systems, e.g., the first known submillisecond oscillations in an X-ray source (van96) and bizarre oscillatory states in the micro-quasar GRS 1915+105 (gre96). Black-hole systems were found to exhibit high-frequency X-ray oscillations (50-450 Hz) that continue to puzzle astrophysicists (rem06). Other MKI results include a possible precursor to a neutron star-black hole binary (lev04) and a millisecond X-ray pulsar in a binary system (cha98). The latter demonstrated that radio emitting neutron stars spinning with millisecond periods are spun up by accretion during their X-ray emitting phase. RXTE results led to four Rossi Prizes (of the HEAD division of the AAS) awarded to RXTE observers; three included MKI observers. All of the observing time of RXTE was open to the world-wide community through competitive proposals.
The Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched by NASA in 1999 into a high elliptical orbit with a 64-hour period that provides the possibility of up to a 55-hour, uninterrupted observation of a 0.5-degree-wide field of view. It carried focusing optics of large diameter (1.2 m) and high resolution (0.5”), which represented substantial improvement over the capabilities of Einstein. MKI provided half of the scientific instruments for Chandra: the Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) (nou87), and the High Energy Transmission Grating Spectrometer (HETG). MKI was partners with Harvard’s Center for Astrophysics in the scientific operation of the Chandra data and operations center (CXC). The ACIS yields images with an angular resolution of 0.5” on axis and an energy resolution of 100 eV over an energy range of 0.4-8 keV. A wealth of spectacular X-ray images of celestial objects from stars to galaxies and diffuse matter have yielded great insight into the nature of these sources. The HETG was developed in collaboration with MKI’s Space Nanotechnology Laboratory. It yields high-resolution spectra from 1 to 8 keV of X-ray stars, supernova remnants, active galactic nuclei, and X-ray binaries sources, like that obtained of the active binary Capella (can00).
The High Energy Transient Explorer studied gamma-ray bursts as described under Gamma Ray astronomy above. The MIT provided instruments thereon that detected the bursts in the X-ray band, so it was, in fact, an X-ray astronomy project.
The offices of the Director and Associate Director were originally to the right and left, respectively, as one enters the anteroom (37-241) from the hallway. When Herb Bridge became the Director in 1978, having been the Associate Director, the Offices were reversed so Herb would not have to move. Herb had occupied the office for over a decade, and it was, to put it kindly, hardly the epitome of neat organization. The Director’s office has been to the left ever since.
The photographs of Jupiter taken from the Voyager spacecraft inspired artist Elizabeth Olbert to create, in 1980, a large, abstract painting reminiscent of the colors and striations of Jupiter. She gave it to her father, Prof. Stanislaw Olbert, a participant in the Voyager program, and it was mounted in his McNair Building office. Upon his retirement in 1988, it was moved to the office of Prof. Hale Bradt. In April 2010 it was donated to MIT, accepted into the Permanent Collection of the MIT Visual Arts Center, and mounted in the anteroom of the MKI Director’s office, where it has much increased visibility.
Over the years, the support staff of the CSR/MKI headquarters have contributed greatly to the smooth and efficient running of our programs. Some of those who were with CSR/MKI for an extended period are:
Edward Boughan, Robert Butler, Robert Dill, John Doty, Rick Foster. Robert Goeke, Jack Gomes, Ken Mason, Donald Humphries, Edward Morgan, Robert Rasche, Peter Tappan, Richard Taylor.
David Breslau, John Donahue, Michael Doucette, Robert Laliberte, Myron MacInnis, Richard Marchi, Fred Miller, Joseph Morris, James O’Connor, Robert Renshaw, William B. Smith, Leo Rodgers, Will Yelle.
See Research Histories above.
The MIT Kavli Institute would like to thank Hale Bradt for organizing this very comprehensive history of our program. He solicited contributions from faculty, researchers, and staff, especially those with a long-association with the Kavli Institute. Our sincere thanks go to Hale and to the many staff who contributed to this section.