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Michael Juda (1959–2016)

Juda studied the soft, galactic X-ray background. He was Lead Flight Director for the Chandra X-ray Observatory. His leadership through many anomalies and improvements contributed greatly to its longevity and scientific productivity.

Published onMar 15, 2022
Michael Juda (1959–2016)

Photo credit: unknown.

Michael Juda passed away on Saturday December 3, 2016, nine years after an original diagnosis of kidney cancer. He was 57.

Michael was born February 12, 1959, in Rochester, New York, where he graduated from Irondequoit High School in 1977. He was an active participant in athletics and theatrical productions, graduating from Caltech with a B.Sc. in physics in 1981. He was a graduate student, post-doc, and research scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from 1981 through 1993. His Ph.D. thesis elucidated the structure of hot and neutral gas in the Milky Way. He developed detectors and payloads to observe the ultrasoft, less than 0.2 keV, X-ray background using rocket flights from White Sands, New Mexico. Also participating in those rocket flights was Ph.D. student Jiahong Zhang, to whom he became married and shared many great adventures throughout his life. As a postdoc and research scientist in the Wisconsin Space Physics Group he worked with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Wisconsin team developing microcalorimeters as X-ray detectors. Previously used as infrared bolometers, this technology provided high throughput, high spectral resolution X-ray measurements, providing game-changing capabilities for X-ray spectroscopy.

Juda’s expertise in this technology led to his hire in 1993 by the Chandra (then AXAF) X-ray Center of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory as the instrument scientist for the microcalorimeter detector, part of the original suite of instruments on the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility (AXAF) mission. However, by the time Mike arrived in January 1994, the calorimeter instrument and its AXAF-S mission had been cancelled. Mike willingly took on the role of instrument operations scientist for the AXAF-I High Resolution Camera (HRC), the radiation monitor detector, and the two transmission gratings — all instruments he had never previously worked on. He was embedded with the HRC instrument Principal Investigator team to help prepare and calibrate that camera, leading to seamless transfer of HRC calibration, software, and operations to the CXC. Post-launch, he made many contributions to understanding the positional response and reducing the background of the HRC, and instigated operations procedures to improve the event timing information. He monitored the radiation detector through years of extended operations, including dealing with degradation due to increasing temperatures, and salvaging the system’s ability to autonomously shut down during high radiation. When that monitor ultimately failed, he provided leadership to reprogram the Chandra flight software to use the HRC anticoincidence shield rates to recognize high radiation and shut down observing operations.

Mike had multiple interests, including music, philosophy, and travel. He engaged in many outdoor activities, including soccer, hiking, and especially rock climbing. His adventures with Jiahong included hiking to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro and a trek to the Mt. Everest base camp.

Mike’s greatest service to the astronomical community was as Chandra Flight Director. With his knowledge of instruments and operations, and coupled with his calm and objective approach, he was asked and agreed to become a Chandra Flight Director one year after launch, and became lead Flight Director and Mission Operations Manager of the Chandra flight and science teams in 2004. This is an extremely critical assignment. In times of crisis the flight director has ultimate authority over the fate of the mission. He oversaw the Northrop Grumman flight operations team and the SAO Operations Control Center team. His deep knowledge of the spacecraft and its operations, calm and unflappable leadership during spacecraft anomalies, and astute guidance of the development of upgrades and improvements to the spacecraft operations procedures and software contributed directly to Chandra’s longevity and scientific productivity.

His legacy as chair of the Flight Control Board includes ensuring careful consideration and control of upgrades and improvements to Chandra’s flight software and operations and providing close oversight of all spacecraft commanding. Through his actions and leadership, Mike provided an impeccable approach to Chandra mission operations, overseeing the safety and health of the Observatory. He trained his two successor Flight Directors. He continued as HRC operations scientist, and provided training to the Principal Investigator (PI) team during the personnel transition after the death of the original PI. Mike’s effective leadership, and his ability to enable disparate groups to work smoothly toward a common goal, earned deep respect from all those who worked with him, and represent an aspirational model for staff at all levels.

Mike is survived by Jiahong, five siblings, and many nieces and nephews. All who knew him can attest to the inscription on his stone:

“A Life filled with curiosity, integrity, determination, and grace.”

See also Juda’s AstroGen information.


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