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Stephan Donald Price (1941–2012)

Published onDec 01, 2012
Stephan Donald Price (1941–2012)

A key chapter of discovery in infrared astronomy has closed with the death of Stephan D. Price on 1 December 2012. Steve grew up in Los Angeles in a modest household and graduated from UCLA with an AB in 1963. While a graduate student, he worked for ITT Federal Labs on one of the first infrared sky surveys, foreshadowing his greatest contribution to infrared astronomy, the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory (AFGL) Infrared Sky Survey. He earned his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University in 1970 with Bob Wing.

While at Ohio State, Steve began working as a civil servant for the U.S. Air Force at the Air Force Cambridge Research Lab at Hanscom Air Force Base in 1969. He continued there through multiple name changes. AFCRL became AFGL in 1976, the Air Force Phillips Lab in 1990, and finally the Air Force Research Lab in 1997. In 1987 Steve became the branch chief responsible for celestial backgrounds. He retired from Hanscom in 2011 and closed his career as a Senior Research Physicist at the Institute for Scientific Research at Boston College.

Steve worked closely with Russ Walker in the early 1970s, conducting a rocket-borne survey of the mid-infrared sky, publishing the preliminary AFCRL survey in 1975 and the first complete version as the AFGL survey in 1976. Steve expanded the effort to include much of the southern hemisphere and improved the quality of the reported photometry with the Revised AFGL Catalog in 1983.

The Air Force needed to understand the infrared sky, partly for infrared satellite orientation and calibration, and also to identify unnatural objects. One of the hallmarks of Steve's career was his ability to address Air Force needs while supporting civilian infrared astronomers. The astronomy departments at UC San Diego, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Wyoming participated in and benefited enormously from Air Force sponsorship of ground-based efforts to verify and better characterize the objects discovered by the AFGL survey.

The AFGL survey opened the entire mid-infrared sky to astronomers for the first time, revealing many enigmatic objects. Orchestrated campaigns to investigate them led to a series of classic papers on now-famous sources like the Cygnus Egg Nebula (AFGL 2688) and the Red Rectangle (AFGL 915).

Steve also focused on the fundamental problem of photometric calibration, a topic as unsexy as it is fundamentally important. The need was well illustrated when Martin Cohen and collaborators realized that basic gaps in our understanding of the spectral emission from late-type stars had introduced artifacts into the archive of spectra from the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS). Steve directed essential Air Force funding to the problem, leading to a series of papers in the 1990s and 2000s systematically characterizing the infrared spectral properties of standard stars. Infrared astronomy missions, past, present, and future, owe Steve and the Air Force a great debt for this support.

Steve was responsible for astronomy on the DoD Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX), launched in 1996. In addition to observations to improve infrared photometric calibration, MSX mapped the Galactic plane and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, which were too crowded for reliable photometry from IRAS. Other studies focused on the Solar System, most notably an infrared study of zodiacal dust. Steve and his team prided themselves on their ability to release reliable data from Pentagon satellites to the general astronomy community in a timely manner. During that period, he also contributed to the success of the European Infrared Space Observatory (ISO) by providing state-of-the art detectors for portions of the spectrum covered by the Short-Wavelength Spectrometer. To complete his resume, his final years included many papers based on data from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Solar Mass Ejection Imager.

Those of us who worked closely with Steve knew him as a warm and caring individual, even if he could sometimes come across as cantankerous. He was always mission-oriented and never let the objectives of a project stray far from his mind. Perhaps because of his unique role straddling the military and civilian worlds, and perhaps also because of his brusque nature, his contributions to infrared astronomy may be under-appreciated. The early decades of infrared astronomy were highly competitive, if not downright cutthroat, and Steve's ability to channel money from sources other than NASA and the NSF was critical to the success of several university-based research groups. With his contributions to the AFGL surveys, the MSX mission, infrared spectral calibration, and his support of other space missions, his death is a loss for us all.

We will remember him fondly and with great respect.

Steve is survived by his wife of 46 years, Virginia (Terpay) Price, his daughter Janice Price-Wilson and her husband Daniel Tully, and a granddaughter Maya Wilson.

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