Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Deceased--Gart Westerhout

Gart Westerhout
June 15th, 1927 to October 14th, 2012

"Gart Westerhout, astronomer"

Internationally known radio astronomer had been scientific director at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington and established astronomy department at College Park


Frederick N. Rasmussen

October 17th, 2012

The Baltimore Sun

Gart Westerhout, an internationally known radio astronomer who established the astronomy department at the University of Maryland, College Park and was scientific director at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville.

He was 85.

The son of an architect and a writer, he was born and raised in The Hague, Netherlands, where he also graduated from high school.

Dr. Westerhout earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics, physics and astronomy in 1950 from the University of Leiden, and earned his master's degree in the discipline in 1954.

He earned his Ph.D. in 1958 in astronomy and physics, also from the University of Leiden. From 1952 to 1956, Dr. Westerhout was an assistant at the Leiden University Observatory, and from 1956 to 1959 was its scientific officer.

Dr. Westerhout said in an autobiographical sketch that while at Leiden, he developed the first detailed map of the "Spiral Structure of our Milky Way galaxy in 1955, followed by the discovery of numerous new sources of radio waves in our Milky Way," some of which now bear his name.

He conducted his research at Dwingeloo radio observatory in the Netherlands, which resulted in the "Westerhout Radio Catalog" identifying the largest star formation regions in the Milky Way galaxy.

The catalog carried Westerhout numbers, for instance W51, which is "a giant molecular cloud and massive star formation," according to Galaxy Map, in an article explaining the astronomer's work. The catalog, which eventually identified 79 objects, is still in use today by radio astronomers.

Dr. Westerhout explained the importance of his search for neutral hydrogen clouds by describing them as "building blocks of the stars," in a 1966 Evening Sun article. "In time they become the basic mortar for stars such as our sun."

As a radio astronomer, a field that came into prominence during the 1930s, Dr. Westerhout studied the universe by focusing on the radio waves that emanated from celestial objects and also the distribution of hydrogen throughout the galaxy.

From 1959 to 1962, when he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland as professor of astronomy, he had been chief scientific officer at the Leiden observatory.

At the time of Dr. Westerhout's appointment at College Park, John S. Toll, head of the department of physics and later university president, told The Baltimore Sun that Dr. Westerhout was "the most outstanding radio astronomer in Europe and among the best in the world."

It was Dr. Westerhout's mission when he arrived at College Park to establish the astronomy program. He did so in 1962 with 12 graduate students. During his 15-year tenure at Maryland, the department grew into one of the nation's most prominent astronomy programs.

At its unveiling in 1964, the University Observatory at College Park became the first major optical laboratory in Maryland, containing 24-inch and 8-inch telescopes, with room for a future 36-inch telescope.

"The Netherlands exports three things — cheese, flowers and astronomers," Dr. Westerhout told The Evening Sun.

Dr. Westerhout also conducted a major survey of the sky through the use of the 300-foot radio telescope at Green Bank, W.Va.

In 1972, Dr. Westerhout organized the University of Maryland's division of mathematical, physical and engineering sciences and was named its head the next year.

Dr. Westerhout left College Park in 1977, when he was named scientific director at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Northwest Washington.

During his 16-year tenure, he was responsible for a major expansion of the organization and construction of a network of five radio telescopes from Florida to Hawaii that measured the rotation of the Earth.

He also started the successful effort to develop the Interferometer, a new type of optical telescope that is now operating in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Dr. Westerhout was also responsible for the nation's Master Clock, a collection of some 30 atomic clocks that employ vibrating atoms to measure time within one-billionth of a second.

The clock records and provides the world's time, which is used by civilians, the military and business.

It is "vital for synchronizing everything from warships to bank transfers," observed The Washington Post in a 1993 article.

He also developed astronomical and nautical almanacs that are used for navigation by the Navy and many merchant ships, and in later years, the observatory developed computer versions of them.

"He was a man who got to root causes of problems very quickly and had a very forthright way of doing business,"
said William E. Howard, an astronomer who retired from Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. "He was a very proactive individual, and ... he got the Naval Observatory to go in new areas."

The former Adelphi and Hampden resident, who had lived at Charlestown since 2001, retired in 1993.

An amiable and affable man who enjoyed smoking cigars, Dr. Westerhout was the author of more than 70 scientific papers, reviews and reports. In recognition of his life's work, Minor Planet 5105 was renamed Minor Planet Westerhout in 1991.

He was a member of numerous astronomical organizations, some of which included the Dutch Astronomical Society, International Astronomical Union, American Astronomical Society, Royal Astronomical Society and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Dr. Westerhout was an avid O-gauge model railroader and had maintained a detailed layout in his home.

He was a communicant of St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church in Hampden.

Surviving are his wife of 56 years, the former Judith Monaghan; two sons, Gart T. Westerhout of Osugi, Japan, and Julian Westerhout of Bloomington, Ill.; two daughters, Magda Westerhout Mobley of Roland Park and Brigit Molony of Catonsville; a sister, Marianne Thunnissen of the Netherlands; and six grandchildren.

Gart Westerhout [Wikipedia]

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