Robert Wilson (astronomer)

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For the American astronomer, see Robert Woodrow Wilson

Sir Robert Wilson (16 April 1927 – 2 September 2002) CBE, FRS,[1] was the son of a Durham miner. He studied physics at King's College, Durham and obtained his PhD in Edinburgh, where he worked at the Royal Observatory on stellar spectra. He was an astronomer, who fully embraced the opportunities provided by the space age and he was one of the pioneers who laid the groundwork for the development of the Great Space Observatories, such as the Hubble Space Telescope.[2]

In 1959 Wilson joined the Plasma Spectroscopy Group at Harwell where he was responsible for measuring the temperature in the Zeta experiment, confirming that it had not been hot enough to have produced thermonuclear fusion. As head of the Plasma Spectroscopy Group at Culham, he led a programme of rocket observations of ultraviolet spectra of the sun and stars. By placing telescopes on rockets and satellites it was possible to avoid the absorption of the ultraviolet light by the Earth's atmosphere and gain a great deal of information about the hot plasmas especially in the Sun's chromosphere and corona.

Wilson then became involved in the European Space Research Organization's first astronomy satellite, the TD-1A mission, and led the British collaboration with Belgium in the S2/68 experiment which in 1972 conducted the first all sky survey in the ultraviolet.

Wilson was best known for his role as "father" of the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) satellite. This had started life in 1964 as a proposal to ESRO for a Large Astronomical Satellite, which proved too expensive and studies were abandoned in 1967. Wilson, however, convinced the UK authorities to continue the study, and achieved a radical redesign which at the same time had greater capability and was simpler and therefore cheaper. This concept was called the Ultraviolet Astronomical Satellite (UVAS). It was again submitted to ESRO in November 1968 but despite a favourable assessment report was not accepted. Convinced of the soundness of the concept, Wilson offered the design work to NASA and this ultimately led to IUE, an international project between NASA, ESA and the UK.

In 1972 he relinquished his post as Director, Science Research Council's Astrophysics Research Unit, Culham to become Perren Professor of Astronomy at University College London. He was the George Darwin Lecturer of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1985. He was knighted in 1989.[3]


  1. ^ Jordan, C. (2004). "Sir Robert Wilson CBE. 16 April 1927 -- 2 September 2002: Elected F.R.S. 1975". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 50: 367. doi:10.1098/rsbm.2004.0024. 
  2. ^ "Sir Robert Wilson - Obituaries, News - The Independent". London. 24 September 2002. Retrieved 2011-07-27. 
  3. ^ "No. 52009". The London Gazette. 5 January 1990. p. 221. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Exploring the Universe with the IUE Satellite Ed Y.Kondo 1987,1989 ISBN 90-277-2380-X
  • A. Dalgarno, Sir Robert Wilson, Biographical Memoir, Proc. Am. Phil. Soc., p 119 Vol 142 March 2003. [1]
  • I. Howarth & A. Willis Sir Robert Wilson 1927–2002 Astr. & Geophys. Vol 44 (1) Page 1.34, Feb 2003 [2]