Ewen Whitaker

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Ewen A. Whitaker
Born (1922-06-22)22 June 1922
London, England
Died 11 October 2016(2016-10-11) (aged 94)
Tucson, Arizona, U.S.
Nationality British
Occupation Astronomer

Ewen Adair Whitaker (22 June 1922 – 11 October 2016) was a British-born astronomer who from 1951 specialized in lunar studies.[1] During WW2 he was engaged in quality control—by UV spectrographic analysis—of the lead sheathing of hollow cables strung under the English Channel as part of the secret Project PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) to supply gasoline to Allied military vehicles in France. After the war he obtained a position at the Royal Greenwich Observatory working on the UV spectra of stars, but became interested in lunar studies. As a sideline, Whitaker drew and published in 1954 the first accurate chart of the South Polar area of the Moon and served as director of the Lunar Section of the British Astronomical Association.

After meeting Dr. Gerard P. Kuiper, Director of Yerkes Observatory, Wisconsin, USA, at an International Astronomical Union meeting in Dublin in 1955, he was invited to join Kuiper's fledgling Lunar Project at Yerkes to work on producing a high-quality photographic atlas of the Moon. The dawn of the Space Age with the launch of the Russian Sputnik 1 soon put the Lunar Project in NASA's limelight.

In 1960 Whitaker followed Kuiper to the University of Arizona where the small Lunar Project evolved into the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) with over 300 scientists, technicians, and supporting staff. The resulting Photographic Lunar Atlas, Orthographic Atlas of the Moon (giving accurate positions on the lunar surface), and the Rectified Lunar Atlas (giving astronaut-eye views of the whole lunar nearside) proved to be invaluable for the planning and operational stages of later spacecraft missions to the Moon. Whitaker was involved with several NASA missions, including successfully locating the landing site of the Surveyor 3. This was used to set the landing site for the Apollo 12 mission whose astronauts visited the Surveyor lander.

Whitaker was considered by some to be the world's leading expert on lunar mapping and nomenclature[citation needed]. He was active in the IAU's Task Group for Lunar Nomenclature. In 1999 he published a book on the history of lunar mapping and nomenclature, titled "Mapping and Naming the Moon."

Ewen Whitaker retired from the LPL in 1978 becoming research scientist emeritus. He resided in Tucson, Arizona and died on 11 October 2016.[2][3] His wife Beryl died in 2013.

NASA teams[edit]

  • Co-investigator with G. P. Kuiper, H. Urey, G. Shoemaker, and R. Heacock, on Lunar Ranger Project; Whitaker chose impact points for Rangers 6 and 7, the latter being the first spacecraft to obtain closeups of the Moon's surface.
  • Member of Lunar Surveyor TV Investigator Team. Located landed positions of four Surveyors, including Surveyor 3, which was chosen as the landing site for the Apollo 12 astronauts.
  • Member of Lunar Orbiter 5 Scientific Site Selection Team; he chose four of the final list of sites.
  • Member of Apollo Orbital Science Photo Team. He briefed orbiting astronauts and their backups for Missions 13, 15, and 16.

Other achievements[edit]

First to apply the Zwicky technique of differential UV/Red photography to the Moon, which maps areas of differing chemical composition of the lunar surface. Results used in Apollo site choices.

Discovery and approximate determination of the orbital eccentricity and inclination of Miranda, Uranus's 5th satellite, made possible by a simple plate-measuring method that he devised and which gave a tenfold increase in precision (from plates taken decades earlier).

With colleague D. W. Arthur added about 60 new names to anonymous craters near the limb of the Moon that had been brought into prominence in the Rectified Atlas. The names were adopted internationally. More recently, he chose 14 favorably located farside craters to commemorate the Challenger and Columbia astronauts who lost their lives in the two disasters. These were also adopted internationally over competing suggestions.

Whitaker determined, with considerable confidence, the dates on which Galileo made his drawings of the Moon and composed the various relevant sections of his "Sidereus Nuncius."

He devised a logical lettering system for designating unnamed craters on the Moon's farside. This was adopted unanimously for universal use by the IAU in 2006, as was the corrected list of letters for nearside craters which L. E. Anderson and he compiled in 1982.

Long after his retirement, Whitaker made contributions to the history of the telescope, constructing an instrument built to a 16th century design attributed to Leonard Digges capable of producing magnified wide-field images.[4]


Over 130 atlases, reports, papers, articles, reviews, chapters for books, letters, etc. A selection of the more important given below.

  • Photographic Lunar Atlas, ed. G. P. Kuiper, with 3 others (1960)
  • Orthographic Atlas of the Moon, ed. G. P. Kuiper with 1 other (1960/61)
  • Rectified Lunar Atlas, with 3 others (1963)
  • Consolidated Lunar Atlas, with 4 others (1967)
  • Location of the Surveyor Spacecraft (1968)
  • An Investigation of the Lunar Heiligenschein (1969)
  • Mare Imbrium Lava Flows and their Relationship to Color Boundaries (1972)
  • Artificial Lunar Impact Craters; 4 New Identifications (1972)
  • Eccentricity and Inclination of Miranda's orbit, with 1 other (1973)
  • Populations of Impacting Bodies in the Inner Solar System, with 1 other (1976)
  • Galileo's Lunar Observations and the dating of the composition of "Siderius Nuncius" (1978)
  • The Lunar Procellarum Basin (1981)
  • NASA Catalogue of Lunar Nomenclature, with 1 other (1982)
  • The University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory; its Founding and Early Years (1986)
  • Selenography in the 17th Century (1989)
  • Mapping and Naming the Moon (242 page book) (1999)
  • Mare Orientale; The Eastern Sea in the West (2007)
  • The Digges-Bourne Telescope Revisited (2007)
  • Representations and Maps of the Moon—The First Two Centuries (2009)

Other recognition[edit]

  • 1969 Personal letter of commendation from President Nixon for finding landed position of Surveyor 3, enabling the Apollo 12 astronauts to land nearby and retrieve parts for laboratory examination.
  • 1982 Walter Goodacre Medal and Prize from British Atronomical Association for contributions to knowledge of the Moon.
  • 2000 Asteroid 7948 (1992HY) named "Whitaker" for same reason.
  • 2008 Asked by Director of Instituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence to write a 4,500 word illustrated article on the history of Moon observation and mapping from Leonardo da Vinci to 1800, together with an update on his 1978 paper on dating Galileo's Moon drawings, to accompany those original drawings from 1609! All of this for a major exhibition planned for March - September 2009 in the Palazzo Strozzi there.

Sources of above information:-

  1. Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona (Curriculum Vitae and Publications list for E. A. Whitaker)
  2. Who's Who in America" 2010 Edition
  3. The subject himself. The introductory section was completely re-written by Mister Whitaker, and entered by a friend and temporary house guest of the Whitakers, on 29 May 2010. A few minor updates were added in 2014.