Skip to main content

Astrophysicist Robert Brown, leader in telescope development, named to head NAIC and its main facility, Arecibo Observatory

A noted astrophysicist and observatory administrator, widely experienced in international collaboration, has been chosen to direct the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), whose main facility is the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, the world's largest, and most sensitive, single-dish radio telescope. He is Robert L. Brown, currently deputy director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), headquartered in Charlottesville, Va.

NAIC, managed by Cornell University under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation (NSF), was created as a national center for radio science in 1971. The 1,000-foot-diameter (305 meters) Arecibo telescope was completed in 1963 at the initiative of Cornell electrical engineering professor William E. Gordon. NAIC and Arecibo provide access to state-of-the-art observing for scientists in radio astronomy, solar system radar and atmospheric studies, and the observatory has the unique capability for solar system and ionosphere (the atmosphere's ionized upper layers) radar remote sensing.

In recent years Brown has played a leading role in the international group that is constructing the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) observatory in Chile. "The wonderful thing about NAIC is that it manages the largest telescope on Earth. There are things this telescope can do that no other facility in the world can do and won't be able to do for the next couple of decades," says Brown.

"I am delighted that Bob Brown has agreed to become director of NAIC," says Robert Richardson, Cornell's vice provost for research. "He is an outstanding scientist who has the energy, enthusiasm, leadership skills and management ability to direct the NAIC through the next decade of challenging science."

Martha Haynes, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy at Cornell who heads the university's NAIC oversight committee, praises Brown as "able to see beyond the immediate uses of a telescope to future uses that explore new territory. His interest in coming to NAIC is to enable new science and to take advantage of all possible advances in technology, in hardware, in software and in new ways of observing."

Brown has spent more than 33 years at the NRAO, which operates major observing facilities in West Virginia and New Mexico and is managed by Associated Universities, Inc., for the NSF. Haynes, who heads the board of trustees of AUI, notes that Brown has considerable management and project experience and also has played a leading role in developing both the concept, technical plan and international partnership for ALMA. "But Bob has more than management skills: there also is his science vision, rooted in his background as a theoretical astrophysicist," she says.

The new director, who takes over his post on May 5, succeeds Paul Goldsmith, the J. A. Weeks Professor in the Physical Sciences at Cornell, who stepped down last month to return to full-time research and teaching. During his decade-long tenure, Goldsmith oversaw the second major upgrading of the telescope, resulting in a significant increase in the telescope's sensitivity, a large expansion of its frequency coverage, the addition of a one-megawatt transmitter for radar studies of solar system bodies and an enhancement of the telescope's capabilities for studies of the atmosphere. These improvements have opened up new areas of research, maintaining Arecibo at the forefront of centimeter-wavelength radio science.

Brown believes there is "a great deal of science motivation" for driving the telescope's frequency range even higher. Also in the future, Brown sees Arecibo Observatory becoming "a test bed" for two major international radio astronomy projects planned for development in the next decade: the Square Kilometer Array and the Low Frequency Array. "The kinds of technology presently in use or in development at the Arecibo Observatory will be the technology on which those two projects depend," he says. "As a NSF-supported national center, NAIC should lend its technical and operations expertise to the pursuit of these scientific programs, both of which received high ranking by the National Research Council's Astronomy and Astrophysics Survey Committee."

Brown has been both associate and deputy director of NRAO since 1985, spearheading not only the United States involvement in ALMA, but also managing NRAO participation in NASA's Space Very Long Baseline Interferometry Project. From 1977 to 1980 he was assistant director of NRAO operations in Green Bank, and from 1984 to 1985 he was assistant director of NRAO operations in Tucson. He received his B.A. from the University of California-Berkeley, in 1965, and his M.S. and his Ph.D. from the University of California-San Diego, both in 1969. All of his degrees are in physics. At NRAO he has been involved in studies, both theoretical and observational, of the interstellar medium, the galactic center and distant galaxies.Brown, who says he intends to spend "an appreciable amount of time at the telescope," wants to make the observatory even more accessible to the scientists who use it. This means, he says, "providing a level of support that is somewhat enhanced over what has been historically provided. We need staff to assist potential users in all phases of scientific research, from proposal writing to calibration and data reduction." He adds, "What could expand Arecibo's usage even further is a capability for broad question-solving by letting researchers anywhere access archival data, perhaps through the National Virtual Observatory initiative, or by having the observatory staff undertake observations on behalf of specific users."

In addition, beginning in 2005, the observatory will face the challenge of processing huge quantities of data produced by the Arecibo L-band Feed Array (ALFA), which will revolutionize the ability to survey the sky quickly and result in the discovery of thousands of new pulsars and galaxies. "ALFA will bring a change in paradigm, whereby surveys deliver unique data products, unachievable with any other telescope," says Brown.

Although fiber-optic links to the United States mainland have made possible the remote operation of the telescope from computers in most of the world's universities, Brown believes it is essential to encourage more users to visit the observatory. "Bringing people to the telescope has the advantage that people who are physically in Arecibo will interact both personally and professionally with the staff, which allows the staff to sense where problems lie, and to work with visiting users on priorities and developments."

The eight-person search committee that selected Brown for the NAIC directorship from a worldwide candidate list was led by Joseph Burns, the Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering and professor of astronomy at Cornell. Says Burns: "He has a big job facing him. It's a unique facility and it needs a unique person to lead it -- someone who is going to be a good scientific leader and yet adept in a political world who can be sensitive to the challenges of operating a complex facility in Puerto Rico, far from the Cornell campus, and attuned to the modern way of doing astronomy."

Media Contact

Media Relations Office