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Judith L. Pipher (1940–2022)

Pipher made seminal contributions to detector development and observations in infrared astronomy, and was a major contributor to the success of the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Published onAug 16, 2022
Judith L. Pipher (1940–2022)

Photo credit: University of Rochester Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Judith Lynn (Judy) Pipher died in hospice care at her home in Seneca Falls, New York, on February 21, 2022 following a months-long struggle with pancreatic cancer. She was 81.

Judy was born in Toronto, Canada, and received her B.A. in astronomy from the University of Toronto in 1962. That same year, she began her graduate studies in astronomy at Cornell University, carrying out her doctoral research under the supervision of Prof. Martin Harwit. At the time, Harwit’s group was using sounding rockets to launch a small, cryogenically cooled telescope above much of Earth’s atmosphere in order to carry out infrared (IR) observations of astronomical objects. Judy and other Cornell graduate students were assigned the task of making single-pixel detectors by hand, with sensitivity in the range of wavelengths from about 5 microns to almost 1 mm [1]. Objects such as H II regions, giant molecular clouds, the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, etc., could only be “imaged” by combining scans across them.

Judy met Robert E. (Bob) Pipher while carrying out her graduate studies, and they were married in 1965. Judy completed her Ph.D. thesis, entitled “Rocket Submillimeter Observations of the Galaxy and Background” in 1971. She accepted a position as an Instructor in Astronomy at the University of Rochester later that year and was promoted to Assistant Professor a year later. At the time, she was the only female faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The young couple moved to Seneca Falls, New York, on the northwestern shore of Cayuga Lake, so that Bob could drive east on the New York State Thruway to his engineering job in Syracuse, while Judy drove west along the same highway to Rochester. Judy rapidly proved herself not only to be an exceptionally capable scientist but also to be a willing and generous collaborator as well as an engaging and motivating teacher. Her approach to science is illustrated perfectly by a bumper sticker she had posted on her office door: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”

While she continued to collaborate with her Cornell colleagues during her early years on the Rochester faculty, Judy also welcomed her senior Rochester colleagues as collaborators. Almost immediately, she began to attract graduate students, and she and her students and colleagues carried out far-IR observations from the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (a modified Lockheed C-141A Starlifter jet aircraft) beginning in the late 1970s and continuing into the 1980s. The high-altitude flights (up to 45,000 feet) required the on-board astronomers to undergo flight training in advance and to wear oxygen masks during the observing flights. This is a research thread that continued until the end of her career, most recently as Chair of the Science Council for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy.

Judy succeeded Stewart Sharpless as Director of the University’s C.E. Kenneth Mees Observatory in 1979 and held that position for the next 15 years. She was instrumental in persuading the University to hire one of us (WJF) as an Assistant Professor in 1981, and we immediately began work to characterize and utilize a 32 × 32 pixel InSb infrared (IR) array detector fabricated by the Santa Barbara Research Center (SBRC) for astronomical observations [2][3]. Through this work, the Rochester–SBRC group became the first to use an IR array camera to image the starburst galaxy M82.

Judy and her colleagues also continued to carry out important observational studies of infrared sources, e.g., identifying absorption features in 13 protostars as due to particles of water ice and silicates [4] and using optical and IR polarimetry to map the magnetic field in the Taurus dark cloud [5]. Judy was promoted to Professor of Astronomy in 1983 in recognition of her outstanding research and teaching abilities, her exceptional leadership skills, and her tremendous work ethic. Students flocked to the laboratory Pipher and Forrest established on the top floor of the Bausch and Lomb building on the Rochester campus, and it was rapidly filled with happy and productive undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs at all hours.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Pipher and Forrest became part of a national team tasked with designing and building an IR array camera for the Space Infrared Telescope Facility (SIRTF; subsequently renamed the Spitzer Space Telescope) [6]. In 1988, Pipher and Forrest also convinced the University to hire another of us (DMW), expanding the Rochester IR astronomy and instrumentation group to three full-time faculty.

Judy and her colleagues continued both IR detector development and IR observing runs throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, utilizing the facilities of the Mees Observatory and appropriate national facilities [7][8]. They presented their results in numerous publications and in presentations at astronomy and instrumentation meetings. Starting in 1992, Pipher and Forrest recognized the need for a longer-wavelength version of the 2.5-micron-cutoff HgCdTe arrays used on the Hubble Space Telescope and the 2MASS sky survey. Working with industry, they successfully pushed the cutoff wavelength to 10, then 15, microns. The former are at the heart of NASA’s Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor. The latter, developed primarily for exoplanet space observations, will first be used in ground-based infrared observatories.

Although Judy retired from teaching in 2002 — becoming Professor of Astronomy, Emeritus — she continued to work in the Rochester IR laboratory and participate in observing programs. Both Judy and her husband, Bob, were avid lake enthusiasts, and — after she “retired” — together they built a 40-foot trimaran, Cygnus, on which they spent many enjoyable hours before Bob’s death in 2007.

With the launch of the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2003, the Rochester astronomers and their colleagues first turned their attention to characterizing the in-flight performance of their IR array camera and then to using it for astronomical observations [9][10][11][12][13][14][15]. Her most-cited paper — with more than 2700 citations — was the publication that described the Spitzer IR array camera [16].

Judy continued to participate in forefront astronomical research through the year before her death, with her final lead-authored paper appearing in 2021 [17]. She published more than 200 scientific papers throughout her long and productive career, and she received numerous awards for her work. The long string of students whom she mentored ended only with her passing. She also continued her exemplary leadership of the U.S. astrophysical community, serving on practically countless high-level reviews, advisory councils, and boards of trustees; as an officer of the AAS; and as lead scientific editor of The Astrophysical Journal.

Judy received an award for excellence in undergraduate teaching from her home department in 2001. The following year she received the University’s Susan B. Anthony Award for her lifetime contributions to teaching and research. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (NWHoF) in 2007 for her work in the development of IR detector arrays for astronomy. In an oral history video recorded a decade later by the NWHoF, Judy explained that she had been recognized by other astronomers as the “mother of infrared astronomy” because she was the first woman to go into that then-new field and because she remained active in it for her entire career. In 2020, Judy was named one of the first 200 Legacy Fellows of the American Astronomical Society. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the town of Seneca Falls declared her 80th birthday, 18 June 2020, to be “Dr. Judy Pipher Day.” They celebrated the day with a parade of cars past her home, and Judy stood out front smiling and waving at each one. The International Astronomical Union named the asteroid 306128 Pipher in her honor. Shortly after her passing she was also honored by the Universities Space Research Association with the establishment of the Judith L. Pipher Memorial Scholarship Award. The University of Rochester will also honor her memory with the establishment of the Judith L. Pipher Graduate Fellowship in Physics and Astronomy.

See also Pipher’s AstroGen information.

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