Sten Odenwald

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Sten Odenwald
Sten Odenwald.jpg
Born Sten Felix Odenwald
(1952-11-23) November 23, 1952 (age 64)
Karlskoga, Sweden
Residence Kensington, Maryland
Citizenship United States of America
Nationality American
Fields Physics, astronomy, science communication
Alma mater University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University
Thesis A Far-Infrared Survey of the Galactic Center (1982)
Doctoral advisor Prof. Giovanni Fazio
Other academic advisors Prof. Eric Chaisson
The Astronomy Cafe

Sten Felix Odenwald (born November 23, 1952) is an American astronomer, author, and NASA scientist-educator. Odenwald has worked as part of the NASA Cosmic Background Explorer, Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment investigating the cosmic infrared background. His interests later included space weather as an historical phenomenon. He has published four books: The Astronomy Cafe, The 23rd Cycle, Patterns in the Void and Back to the Astronomy Cafe. He has also appeared in a number of TV and radio documentaries on astronomy and space weather. Since receiving his Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University in 1982, he has been an astronomer in the Washington, D.C. area, primarily at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Since 2000, he has been actively involved in science and math education at NASA, and was a founding member of the Sun-Earth Connection Education Forum,[1] among many other high-visibility NASA education projects involving space weather issues, archeoastronomy and the transits of Venus in 2004 and 2012. He is currently the director of STEM Education at the National Institute of Aerospace.[2]

Early life[edit]

Odenwald was born in Karlskoga, Sweden, and emigrated to California with his family in 1955. He grew up in Oakland, where he attended primary school. After attending Fremont High School between 1968 and 1971, Odenwald attended U.C. Berkeley between 1971 and 1975. He received his bachelor's degree in astronomy in 1975, and attended Harvard University as a graduate student in astronomy from 1975 to 1982.

At Harvard, he studied accretion disks around supermassive black holes. He then worked with Dr. Giovanni Fazio, and completed his Ph.D. in 1982 by investigating the far-infrared properties of the Milky Way's galactic center and the interstellar environment of a million-solar-mass black hole found there.[3] He also worked at the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas, participating in high-altitude balloon launches involving the 1-meter infrared telescope that Fazio and his team built in 1975. While at Harvard, he was the teaching assistant for Owen Gingerich and David Latham.[4]


Following the completion of his Ph.D., Odenwald moved to Washington, D.C., in 1982, where he worked as a postdoctoral candidate at the Space Sciences Division of the Naval Research Laboratory until 1990. While there, he continued his partnership with the Harvard-Smithsonian balloon program and wrote a series of papers on various star-forming regions in the Cygnus X region of the Milky Way including DR-6, DR-7, DR-22[5] as well as DR-15 and DR-20.[6] He also investigated star-forming regions associated with supernova remnants such as IC-433[7] and W-28[8] in order to find evidence for star formation triggered by supernova remnant impacts. Subsequently, he worked with the IRAS infrared data to investigate the frequency and distribution of young stellar objects in the Cygnus-X region,[9][10] detect asteroidal debris disks surrounding sun-like stars,[11] and conducted an investigation of a new class of interstellar dust clouds that he had discovered, beginning with the archetype of this class called the Draco Cloud.[12] This was the first time that astronomers had discovered hydrodynamical processes acting in the interstellar medium to sculpt the shapes of interstellar dust clouds.[13] At NRL, and working with Dr. Kandiah Shivanandan,[14] he built a cryogenically cooled array camera that operated in the mid-infrared, and made frequent trips to the Wyomning Infrared Observatory (WIRO)[15] to collaborate with Prof. Harley Thronsen[16] to map a variety of compact infrared sources. The details of this camera and its scientific results were published in 1992.[17]

After a brief stint working for NASA headquarters pursuing education projects, he joined Dr. Mike Hauser with the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) Team in 1992, working on the Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment (DIRBE). In addition to continuing his investigations of the Cygnus-X region using the new DIRBE far-infrared data, he made the discovery that the DIRBE instrument could detect over 100 galaxies beyond the Milky Way. This was a capacity that the COBE Science Team had not considered. This led to a breakthrough paper[18] detailing the quantity of very cold interstellar dust in these galaxies, which were all spiral-type. In addition to investigating individual extragalactic sources, Odenwald collaborated with Dr. Alexander Kashlinsky and Dr. John Mather, who were investigating the cosmic infrared background, which as yet had not been detected by 1997. When the COBE program ended, Odenwald continued his collaboration with Kashlinsky and Mather, which led to a number of papers related to the cosmic infrared background radiation and traces of its structure at infrared wavelengths.[19][20] Since 2005, Odenwald's research has focused on space weather, specifically the way in which solar storms cause economic damage to satellites in space.[21][22]

Education work[edit]

While still a graduate student at Harvard University, Odenwald was the official scientist who responded to public mail inquiries about astronomy until he graduated in 1982. Soon after receiving his PhD and moving to Washington, D.C., to begin his postdoctoral research at the Naval Research Laboratory, he began writing popular articles for Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines related to cosmology and high-energy physics. In 1986 he was approached and contracted by a publisher at Dodd Meade to write a book about the life of an astronomer. It was called Astronomy: The Human Dimension, but due to a company reorganization in 1988 the book was never published. Odenwald also taught a number of courses on astronomy with the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program between 1984 and 1988. In 1995, increasing interest by the public in the World Wide Web thanks to the availability of the graphical MOSAIC browser, Odenwald embarked on writing a series of web pages called The Astronomy Café. The objective was to create a privately operated go-to site for astronomy education by a professional astronomer. It included many unpublished essays about behind-the-scenes astronomical research, but most importantly it offered an Ask the Astronomer resource where visitors could email Odenwald a question, and within a few days an answer would appear on the website that was indexed by topic area. The website received many awards, and is now in its 20th year of operation.

Between 1997 and 2005, Odenwald worked on education activities related to the NASA IMAGE satellite, and helped to form the NASA Sun-Earth Connection Education Forum. In 2005 he created a NASA, web-based resource called SpaceMath@NASA,[23][24] which provides mathematical resources to teachers and students that demonstrate how mathematics is used in many real-world settings across NASA. He participates in TV programs for NASA, radio interviews and other opportunities to promote public education, and interest in astronomy and space research including programs for Ted-Ed[25] and for YouTube.[26][27][28]

Since 2012, Odenwald has written blogs for the Huffington Post[29] on topics as wide-ranging as the funding of cancer research[30] and interstellar travel.[31][edit]

The Astronomy Cafe[32] is a website that Odenwald started in 1995 as an experiment in public education using the then-new medium of the World Wide Web, which could now be navigated with the MOSAIC web browser. It initially offered essays and collections of visual imagery in astronomy. Odenwald debuted the Ask the Astronomer section of the site in 1996, where he invited people to email questions about astronomy, and he would post the answers. The Astronomy Café traffic grew, and by 1998, the Ask the Astronomer section had reached 3000 questions. Over the years, Odenwald has created web resources in space weather,[33] and a variety of NASA resources such as SpaceMath@NASA.[34]


  • The Astronomy Cafe,1998, W.H. Freeman [35]
  • The 23rd Cycle: Learning to live with a stormy star",2001, Columbia University Press[36]
  • Patterns in the Void: Why Nothing is Important, 2002,Westview Press[37]
  • Concepts in Space Science, 2002, Universities Press: ISRO,[38]
  • Back to the Astronomy Cafe,2003, Westview Press[39]
  • Stepping Through the Stargate, 2004, Benbella Books, chapter "Stargate: The Final Frontier?".[40]
  • Heliophysics II Space Storms and Radiation: Causes and Effects, 2008, Elsever Press, K. Schrijver and G. Siscoe, eds.[41]
  • The International Handbook of Innovation Education, 2012, Taylor & Francis/Routledge.[42]

Self-Published Books:

  • Solar Storms: 2000 years of human calamity,2015,CreateSpace,[43]
  • Exploring Quantum Space,2015,CreateSpace,[44]
  • Interstellar Travel:An Astronomer's Guide,2015,CreateSpace,[45]
  • Interplanetary Travel: An Astronomer's Guide,2015,CreateSpace,[46]
  • Eternity: A User's Guide, 2015,CreateSpace,[47]


  • 1975 ----UC Berkeley: "Most Outstanding Undergraduate in Astronomy"
  • 1975 ----Smithsonian Pre-doctoral Fellowship (Three years)
  • 1991 ----BDM, Science Writer's Award for NASA's "Space Astronomy Update"
  • 1994 ----COBE Working Group Award for Outstanding Service
  • 1995 ----YAHOO Top Site of the Week: 'The Astronomy Cafe'
  • 1996 ----Macmillan Top 5% of the Web: 'The Astronomy Cafe'
  • 1998 ----AAAS Science NetLinks Web Award for excellence in content.
  • 1999 ---- NASA Goddard Award of Excellence in Outreach
  • 1999 ----Crystal Award for best educational Video 'Blackout!'
  • 1999 ----Telly Award for best educational video, "Blackout!"
  • 2000 ----AAS Solar Physics Division Popular Science Writing Award
  • 2001 ----Raytheon ITSS, Education and Public Outreach Award
  • 2002 ----Emmy Award for Educational TV Program - NASA/CONNECT
  • 2003 ----Telly Award for Educational TV Program - NASA/CONNECT
  • 2004 ----Emmy Award for Educational TV Program 'Transit of Venus' NASA/CONNECT
  • 2005 ----NASA Education Group Achievement Award 'Transit of Venus'
  • 2006 ----Excellence in Outreach Award - Eclipse 2006: In a Different Light'
  • 2013 ----NASA Education Group Achievement Award 'Transit of Venus'


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  35. ^ Odenwald, Sten (1998). The Astronomy Cafe. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-3278-5. 
  36. ^ Odenwald, Sten (2001). The 23rd Cycle. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-12078-8. 
  37. ^ Odenwald, Sten (2002). Patterns in the Void. Boulder: Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-3938-3. 
  38. ^ Odenwald, Sten (2002). Concepts in Space Science. ISRO: Universities Press. ISBN 978-8173714108. 
  39. ^ Odenwald, Sten (2003). Back to Astronomy Cafe. Boulder: Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-4166-3. 
  40. ^ Elrod, P. (2004). Stepping through the Stargate: Science, Archaeology and the Military in Stargate Sg1. City: Benbella Books. ISBN 1-932100-32-6. 
  41. ^ Odenwald, Sten (2008). Space Storms and Radiation: Causes and Effects. New York: Elsever Press. ISBN 0521760518. 
  42. ^ Shavivina, Larisa (2012). NASA Press Releases: Exploring the mathematics behind the science. New York: Taylor & Francis/Routledge. ISBN 008044198X. 
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External links[edit]

Sites Odenwald writes or contributes to[edit]