Eric Becklin – Infrared Trailblazer

Eric Becklin at the IRTF

When Voyager 1 flew by Jupiter’s moon Io in 1979 and discovered active volcanos spewing gas and ash miles high, NASA’s new Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) on Maunakea was uniquely able to characterize the infrared radiation from the eruptions.

A pioneer of infrared imaging and spectroscopy, Becklin joined the IFA from Caltech in 1977 as the IRTF’s first director. In 1979, both the IRTF and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) were dedicated.

The next decade and beyond saw thrilling discoveries by Becklin and his colleagues:

  • 10- and 20-micron discoveries of many new protostars
  • The characterization of bright IR Galaxies
  • The first millimeter wave study of the Sun during a solar eclipse
  • The first L dwarf substellar object
  • The first infrared search for the black hole in the Galactic Center

He is currently the chief scientist of SOFIA, the world’s largest airborne observatory.

“The IRTF was unique: it was the only ground-based telescope at that time that could make measurements of Io’s volcanos, especially at 20 and 30 microns: it was very exciting.  While the future of infrared astronomy is in observing from space, my time in Hawai‘i was a highlight of my career.”  — Eric Becklin