NASA Goddard Astrophysicist Peter Serlemitsos Wins Joseph Weber Award
Photo of Dr. Peter Serlemitsos
Credit: NASA, Debora McCallum
The American Astronomical Society recently announced prizes for distinction in astronomy and astrophysics for 2009 and an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. was the recipient of the Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation.

The Joseph Weber Award for 2009 was conferred on Dr. Peter Serlemitsos in late January in recognition of his innovative contributions to X-ray detector and telescope designs that have enabled decades of scientific advances in high energy astrophysics. The full citation for the Joseph Weber Award gives details of two landmark inventions by Serlemitsos, in detector design and thin-film X-ray optics and mentions many space missions that his advances have benefited.

"The award was given to me for my contributions to two technologies, both relating to the development of instruments for observations in the field of X-ray Astronomy," Serlemitsos said. "My involvement in these spanned almost my entire career (over 45 years) at Goddard."

The Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation is awarded by the American Astronomical Society to an individual for the design, invention or significant improvement of instrumentation leading to advances in astronomy. It is named after physicist Joseph Weber. The awards tend to be for a career of instrument development rather than a single specific device. The award originated in 2002, and Serlemitsos is its eighth recipient.

Serlemitsos said, "I feel very happy and honored to receive this award. The opportunity that NASA presented to me in 1962 when I joined Goddard was immense." He began his career at Goddard while still in graduate school and almost at the same time as the emergence of the new discipline.

After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1966, Serlemitsos has worked as an astrophysicist at the X-ray Astrophysics Laboratory at NASA Goddard, joining Elihu Boldt, the founder of the group. Peter spent most of his active career in X-ray astrophysics with emphasis in the development of space-borne instrumentation. He has pioneered two types of instruments which have since been used extensively in the field: the large area multi-wire gas proportional counter and lightweight conical foil X-ray mirrors.

In 1966, Serlemitsos began working on improving the first observational tool: the gas proportional counter. There were several balloon and rocket flights with improved detectors based on innovations that he introduced. An instrument aboard NASA's OSO-8 (Orbiting Solar Observatory) used 3 such detectors to conduct pioneering X-ray spectroscopy during its 3 year (1975-1978) lifetime. The next utilization of these detectors was in NASA's HEAO-1, whose primary aim was the cosmic X-ray background. The RXTE mission also used the largest and most sensitive such counters to study a variety of sources, both galactic and extragalactic.

The second tool that Serlemitsos worked on was an extremely lightweight X-ray mirror for medium resolution imaging and broad band spectroscopy. He began work on that in the late 1970s. Those mirrors were important because they could be used by relatively small satellites with limited budgets and other resources. The first use in space of these mirrors was onboard the U.S. Space Shuttle Columbia which flew NASA's mission Astro-1 in 1990, with two telescopes, one of which was the Broad Band X-ray Telescope (BBXRT) which contained two of our mirrors.

In 1993, NASA and Japan teamed in a space borne collaborative instrument, ASCA (Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics) used four mirrors. "It is safe to say that an ASCA type mission could not have been done without them," Serlemitsos said. Suzaku, a second U.S.-Japan collaborative instrument that uses them, is currently in operation orbiting Earth. In NASA's recent competition for small explorers (SMEX), his group was again successful in winning a Mission of Opportunity (MOO), which again involves Japan and is slated to conduct extraordinarily sensitive X-ray spectroscopy of cosmic sources. Its launch is slated for 2013.

His scientific interests include Fe K lines in the spectra of clusters of galaxies, spectra of Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN) and the search with ASCA for hard, AGN-like nuclear sources in nearby spiral galaxies. Serlemitsos resides in Bethesda, Md. and originally hails from Greece.

Related Links:

> More on the awards
> ASCA mission
> Suzaku mission

Rob Gutro / Francis Reddy
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center