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Leisa Kay Townsley (1964-2022)

Townsley led x-ray studies of massive star-forming regions using the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Published onFeb 22, 2023
Leisa Kay Townsley (1964-2022)

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High energy astrophysicist researcher Leisa K. Townsley, a resident of Glade Park, CO, left our community on Monday, August 8, 2022, after a battle with cancer. She was 57 years old.

Born in Oklahoma, this self-described “child of the space age” recalled clipping out newspaper stories about the Viking and Voyager missions in the 1970s (CXC 2006). She also excelled as a Girl Scout, achieving the highest rank - First Class - in 1979 (Tulsa World 2022). After graduating from East Central High School in Tulsa in 1982 she attended Rice University. She recounted how she had “always wanted to become an astrophysicist” but had been encouraged by others to instead consider the more lucrative field of engineering; in the end she followed her heart, double-majoring in Physics and Mathematical Sciences because “money wasn’t as important as doing what I really wanted to do” (CXC 2006). At Rice she worked with C.R. O’Dell on research measuring emission line widths in order to map turbulence in HII regions (O’Dell et al. 1987). After receiving her BA in 1987 Townsley attended graduate school at the University of Wyoming. For her PhD thesis she used the Michigan State University Visual CCD Camera at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory to map the globular cluster systems of three nearby edge-on spiral galaxies, under the supervision of Ronald Canterna (Townsley 1994).

After completing her PhD in 1994 Townsley joined the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University as a Research Associate and member of the Chandra Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) Instrument Team. Prior to the launch of Chandra in 1999, Townsley worked on the ground calibration of the instrument. Townsley joked that she was hired because she had learned how to drive a Sno-Cat in Wyoming, which demonstrated that she could “do field work without killing myself or breaking anything expensive. That skill was important in the early days of calibrating ACIS” (CXC 2006). During this same period of time, she was the Instrument Lead of the Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope for the Swift Gamma-ray Observatory. Donald Schneider (2022) credits Townsley’s detailed Concept Study Report with playing a major role in the selection of Swift as NASA’s next Explorer mission over other competing projects.

The hostile environment of the earth’s radiation belts quickly resulted in damage to the front-illuminated CCDs of ACIS early in Chandra’s mission; Townsley played a major role in developing algorithms and software that corrected for the resulting charge transfer inefficiency (Townsley et al. 2000). She was promoted to Senior Research Associate in 2000, and in 2006 became Senior Scientist.

Her research focused on x-ray studies of massive star-forming regions, including the development of specialized data analysis techniques and tools (including documentation) that benefited the work of other Chandra researchers as well (Townsley 2010). Over her career she served as Principal Investigator for 25 Chandra proposals; however, she was not merely concerned with the science produced by Chandra, but also how the images could be processed in a way that could most effectively communicate the science to the general public. Chandra Press Officer Megan Watzke reflected that her “excitement for the science and for sharing it widely was contagious” (CXC 2023). Townsley’s long-time collaboration with the Chandra press office on public engagement was celebrated after her passing with the release of a special composite image of one of Townsley’s objects of interest, 30 Doradus, combining Chandra X-ray data with infrared observations by the James Webb Space Telescope (CXC 2023).

Townsley is also remembered for her generous mentoring of her Chandra colleagues as well as graduate students and early career professionals at Penn State, their continued success in the field as consequential a legacy as her numerous contributions to x-ray astronomy (Feigelson et al. 2022).


Townsley’s AstroGen entry

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