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Thomas Elbert Corbin (1940-2023)

Corbin was a leader in astrometry and the production of star catalogs for use in navigation and astronomical research.

Published onFeb 22, 2023
Thomas Elbert Corbin (1940-2023)

Photo credit: Corbin family photo

Thomas Elbert Corbin, a leader in observational astrometry and the production of star catalogs, passed away at the age of 82 on Monday January 16, 2023. The cause of death was congestive heart failure and complications from Parkinson's disease.

Tom was born in Orange, New Jersey on September 6, 1940 and was the first child of Joseph Elbert Corbin and Rosa Trout Corbin. He grew up in West Orange, New Jersey except for 1942 through 1945. His father worked at Bell Labs in Whippany, New Jersey as an electrical engineer but was transferred to Bell Labs at Indian Hill, Illinois to do defense work. The family lived in Downer's Grove Illinois and returned to West Orange in 1945 when Tom was 5 years old.

Tom knew from the age of 7 that he wanted to be an astronomer and never veered from that path. He was in a piano recital in New York City and as a treat afterward his father took him to the Hayden Planetarium where he was impressed by the large orrery. He received his first telescope (a 3-inch) when he was 11. He taught himself to identify most objects visible in the sky and learned facts about particular stars and galaxies.

Tom was educated in the West Orange Public Schools. However, after his sophomore year at West Orange High School, he transferred to The Pingry School, a private school in Hillside, New Jersey. He graduated from Pingry in 1958 and had an early acceptance into Harvard. He majored in astronomy and graduated in 1962. At Harvard Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin became a mentor to him. Tom felt she was one of the professors who actually cared about undergraduates in the Astronomy Department. He enjoyed track and field as a sport and was on the track team in high school and also at Harvard. He threw the shot put, but his main event was the javelin for which he unofficially broke the Harvard record for distance thrown. There were few jobs in astronomy at that time of his graduation, and he decided to fulfill his military obligation and joined the National Guard, doing basic training at Ft. Devens, Massachusetts.

Tom came to Washington, D.C. in early 1964 after accepting a position at the U.S. Naval Observatory. He met his future wife, Brenda, in December 1964 when they were introduced by mutual friends and they were married on July 30, 1966. He received his Master's degree from Georgetown University in 1969, and his Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 1977.

At the Naval Observatory Tom specialized in the production of star catalogs for use in navigation and astronomical research. From the beginning he was also an observational astronomer, mainly using the 6-inch and 7-inch transit circles, specialized telescopes for determining accurate star positions. From 1969 to 1971 he observed at the Yale-Columbia station at El Leoncito, Argentina as part of the Observatory's commitment to observe the entire southern hemisphere skies. This was part of a worldwide effort that ran from 1961 to 1973 to provide a catalog of 20,500 Southern Reference Stars. Between 1989 and 1991 Tom led the effort to combine over 150 meridian and photographic star catalogs to produce a reference system for the Astrographic Catalogue, a catalog that contains 320,000 positions and proper motions of stars. He worked on many other programs, including the Observatory's pole-to-pole observing effort. Overall, his work with his colleagues was important to determining the fundamental reference frame for astronomy, against which all celestial positions are measured. He was active in the International Astronomical Union, including serving as President of the Positional Astronomy Commission in the 1990s. He retired from the Naval Observatory in 1999.

Tom was known to his friends, colleagues, and family as a jokester; always enjoying the occasional practical joke. He was also famous for his love of movies. He frequently volunteered to give presentations to local schools, and was skilled at simply explaining complicated astronomical concepts so they could be understood by schoolchildren. He was also active with Boy Scout Troop 8 of Bethesda, Maryland while his son was in this troop. He served as an assistant Scoutmaster and as a merit badge counselor for a number of merit badges, most notably astronomy.

Tom’s interests were wide-ranging, including Civil War history, especially researching the battles in which his great-grandfather, Elbert Corbin, was involved on the Union side. He also had a keen interest in broader military history and a wide knowledge of the subject.

After Tom retired he had a dome built in the backyard of his home and installed a Celestron 11-inch telescope. He later upgraded to a Celestron 14-inch. He loved to observe very faint deep-sky objects which he called "faint fuzzies." He also enjoyed having neighbors and their children come over to look through the telescope. His encyclopedic memory of facts about the objects they were viewing was impressive. He enjoyed using his 18-inch Dobsonian Telescope at dark sky sites but those became harder to find in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. He donated this telescope to the University of Maryland Observatory in July 2017.

Tom is survived by his wife of 56 years, Brenda, and son James Elbert Corbin, daughter-in-law Carmen, and two granddaughters, Camille (11) and Sonia (8). Tom was predeceased by his two younger sisters, Kathy (2008) and Cheryl (2017).

The International Astronomical Union honored both Tom and Brenda, the long-time Librarian of the Naval Observatory, by naming asteroid 4008 Corbin after them. Tom was an excellent scientist, colleague, husband, father, and grandfather. Above all he was a good person, the highest calling to which we should all aspire.

An oral history interview with Tom dated June 11, 1998 is available at the U. S. Naval Observatory Library.

This obituary includes substantial contributions from Brenda and James Corbin.

Corbin’s AstroGen entry

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