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Andrew G. Michalitsianos (1947–1997)

Published onDec 01, 1998
Andrew G. Michalitsianos (1947–1997)

Andrew Michalitsianos, Chief of the Laboratory for Astronomy and Solar Physics (LASP) at Goddard Space Flight Center, died of brain cancer on October 19, 1997. He was 50 years old. Until his last days, he was hard at work on reorganizing and rejuvenating the Laboratory of which he had recently taken command, and on a proposal for a spacecraft to monitor temporal changes in the ultraviolet and X-ray spectra of stars and active galaxies. Because he changed his legal name in the early 1970's, his more than 100 publications are variously published under A.G. Michalitsanos (early) and A.G. Michalitsianos (later).

Andy showed early promise in science in New York City as the president of the Junior Astronomy Club, an organization of high school students whose earlier alumni included Malcolm Savedoff, Larry Helfer, Judith G. Cohen, and Stephen E. Strom. His activities there included leading a South American eclipse expedition. From New York, he went on to the University of Arizona in Tucson for undergraduate studies; there he also worked as a student employee in the Space Division at Kitt Peak National Observatory, where his duties included initial tests of the 50-inch Remotely Controlled Telescope. Graduating with a BS in physics in 1969 Michalitsianos moved to Churchill College, Cambridge University, where he completed a PhD in astrophysics on a theoretical topic in solar physics. While in the UK, he met an English nurse, Kathryn (Kate) Alabaster, whom he later married—after, it was said, her father, a retired Scotland Yard Inspector, had subjected him to a thorough background check.

Michalitsianos' first job after his PhD was as a junior research fellow (1973-75) with Harold Zirin at Big Bear Solar Observatory, owned by the California Institute of Technology. There he turned from solar theory to solar observations and experiments. He delighted in taking visiting colleagues there for thrilling motorboat rides on Big Bear Lake. On one such occasion, he was issued a speeding ticket by the operator of an even faster police boat. In 1976, he went to Greenbelt, Maryland, as a National Research Council-National Academy of Sciences researcher in LASP, the organization that he would later head. There he broadened his interests to include stellar physics, and he worked on interpretations of infrared photometry of long-period variable stars, using data from US Department of Defense satellites in the era preceding the launch of a civilian infrared astronomy satellite.

By 1977, Michalitsianos was in the midst of a research associateship at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochshule in Zurich, when he was recalled to LASP to join the permanent staff and take a significant role in calibrating the Ultraviolet Spectrometer and Polarimeter (UVSP) for the Solar Maximum Mission (SMM), including developing the telescope optics for laboratory calibration. In view of his contributions, he was appointed Co-Investigator on UVSP. However, after the 1978 launch of the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE), with US scientific operation headquartered in LASP, he had become intrigued by IUE and began an almost 20-year career in ultraviolet spectroscopy of stars, nebulae, and gravitationally-lensed sources. By the time SMM was launched in 1980, his interests had focused on the IUE program, and although Michalitsianos participated in a few of the early UVSP publications, he relinquished his observing rights with SMM to concentrate on spectroscopy with IUE.

In his early work with IDE, Michalitsianos focussed on the investigation of symbiotic stars and related objects, often enlisting the participation of specialists like theorist Menas Kafatos, and, for related studies with the Very Large Array, radio astronomer Jan Hollis. In particular, he wrote many papers on the nature of R Aqr and its jet. With Kafatos, he organized an international conference on Supernova 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud, less than 8 months after the supernova was discovered, and edited the proceedings volume from the conference in the following year. He also worked on a series of papers on extragalactic planetary nebulae observed with IUE. His growing involvement with ultraviolet stellar astronomy led to participation with the science team of the Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (UIT) for the Astro-l Space Shuttle mission, and then to helping plan and propose the yet-to-be launched Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE).

During the 1980's, Andy became the IUE Deputy Project Scientist and played a key role in coordinating efforts of NASA engineers and managers in keeping the aging spacecraft working to maximum potential and in justifying to NASA Headquarters and external reviewers the continued long-term operation of IUE. As his interests turned increasingly to the spectra of gravitationally-lensed systems, during the 1990's, he began using HST to investigate these faint targets. In 1997, when Michalitsianos contracted brain cancer, and for months thereafter, he worked intensively with external and NASA scientists, notably Bradley M. Peterson, on the concept for an Earth-orbiting satellite to provide extended time coverage of the sort rarely possible with general-purpose space observatories to monitor variable ultraviolet and X-ray spectra.

Andy is survived by his wife Kate, daughters Elpiniki and Lydia, son Gerasimos, and sister Loukia Michalitsianos.

Photo (available in PDF version) courtesy of Susan G. Neff.

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