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Ronald Cecil Stone (1946–2005)

Published onDec 01, 2006
Ronald Cecil Stone (1946–2005)

Ronald C. Stone, an astronomer at the US Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station, passed away on 10 September 2005 in Downer's Grove, IL, following a valiant struggle with cancer. He was fifty-nine years old.

Ron was born on 9 June 1946 in Seattle, Washington, to Helen (Vocelka) and Cecil Stone. His father was a World War II veteran who attended college on the GI Bill and became a mechanical engineer. He and his wife raised three sons: Dwight, Ronald, and Gavin. They lived in a number of locations across the U.S. before settling at last in Downer's Grove when Ron was in the fourth grade.

Ron's interest in astronomy began when he was given a toy planetarium projector while still in grade school, and later a small telescope. In high school, he also built his own telescope, grinding the 6-inch mirror by hand.

He completed grade school and high school in Downer's Grove and did his undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, majoring in astronomy and physics and graduating cum laude in 1968. The following year, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and served for two years, including a stint in Vietnam. Although his primary assignment was auditing, he was also involved in the defense of the Long Binh base in Vietnam. He was honorably discharged from the service in 1971 and enrolled that fall at the University of Chicago.

While a graduate student working with Bill van Altena, Ron developed his life long interest in the field of astrometry. Van Altena recalls him as "a quiet and cheerful student who wanted to learn, and [who] worked hard to understand the intricacies of astrometry... deriving the most precise proper motions from the 40-inch [Yerkes] refractor plates." Working at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, he completed a thesis entitled, "Mean Secular Parallax at Low Galactic Latitude." While living in Wisconsin, Ron also became engaged to Ellen Mickel, and the two were married at his parents' home in Downer's Grove.

After earning his Ph.D. in 1978 from Chicago, Ron held a number of research and postdoctoral positions. These included a few months at the Venezuelan National Observatory in Merida, where he helped to set up an astrometric program. This work was unfortunately cut short because of difficulties obtaining the requisite work visa. He also had a two year postdoc at Northwestern University, where he did spectroscopy of massive stars and studied various open clusters. Ron and Ellen's first child, Heather, was born on 9 June 1981 in Evanston, IL.

Ron and Ellen moved to Washington, DC, in 1981, where Ron joined the staff of the U.S. Naval Observatory Transit Circle Division. Their son, Geoffrey, was born on 10 May 1983. The marriage ended in divorce in 2001.

During the three years that he spent at the USNO headquarters, Ron received training in observing and data reduction with the 6-inch transit circle. When in 1984 the observatory opened the Black Birch Station in New Zealand for surveying the southern sky with the 7-inch transit circle, Ron joined the first group of astronomers to transfer. There he became involved in developing software for the 7-inch, particularly with the image dissector and the acquisition and reduction of planetary observations. Together with Ellis Holdenreid, he worked on some aspects of the real time control software for the 7-inch. He also continued to work on his earlier interest in runaway OB stars.

When Ron's tour at the Black Birch Station was coming to an end, he requested a transfer to the USNO Flagstaff Station in northern Arizona. There was a transit circle at the Flagstaff Station being fitted with a CCD camera, and Ron's experience with transit circles in Washington and Black Birch made him well-qualified to help with the modernization of this instrument.

Ron worked with David and Alice Monet to automate the 8-inch and develop astrometric software for reducing and analyzing its observations. This telescope came to be known as the FASTT, for Flagstaff Astrometric Scanning Transit Telescope. It was used from 1992 onward to obtain highly accurate astrometric positions of various Solar System bodies that were targets of several NASA space missions. In addition, Ron observed astrometric calibration regions for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. He collaborated in projects to predict and observe stellar and planetary occultations, determine the masses of certain asteroids, and improve the orbits of numerous planetary satellites.

In his letter recalling Ron Stone's career, Bill van Altena wrote, "I also knew and respected Ron as a scientist who worked to do the very best that he could with the FASTT system and produced an outstanding set of data that will be remembered as setting the standards for the best that could be done with drift scanning astrometry."

Ron used FASTT observations of radio stars and the brightest quasars to confirm the tie between the optical and radio reference frames. He developed extensive software for automated reduction of FASTT observations. During his last year of life, he took on the additional responsibility of bringing another new telescope, the 1.3-meter, into operation, and was making good progress in this effort until his illness forced him to relinquish the task.

Besides his professional interests, Ron was a avid outdoorsman. During his years in Williams Bay, he rode a motorcycle and enjoyed SCUBA diving. He is one of the few people to have gone diving in Lake Geneva. He liked nothing better than hiking and exploring wilderness areas. As his brother, Dwight, recalled, "If he saw a mountain, he had to climb it!"

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