Comet ISON Provides Look at Origins of Solar System

Daryl Kim, left, and Ray Russell used NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii to observe the Comet ISON as it approached the sun last year. (Photo Illustration: Elisa Haber and Eric Hamburg/The Aerospace Corporation)

Ray Russell is an astronomer.

As a seven year old in 1957, Russell was awestruck by the launch of Sputnik. The pioneering Soviet satellite captured the young boy’s imagination and led him to dream — like many other children of the era — that he would one day become an astronaut. Within that same year, the seven-year-old Russell discovered that his eyesight was 20/400, as opposed to the 20/20 required of pilots and astronauts. With a pragmatism belying his age, Russell immediately decided that he would devote himself to astronomy, figuring that if he couldn’t travel into space, the next best thing would be to study it.

With renewed purpose and dedication to his education, the precocious Russell diligently carried a briefcase to his elementary school classes and took on extracurricular, astronomy-focused science projects in his rural hometowns of Heuvelton and Westville — located close to the Canadian border, deep in the wilds of upstate New York. Though he lived far from New York’s cultural centers, Russell made the most of his towns’ limited resources and continued to progress as a student and as an amateur astronomer. His passion for space and scientific exploration only grew from there, eventually leading him to the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he earned an undergraduate degree in astronomy. Upon completion of his degree, Russell was accepted into a graduate program at the University of California, San Diego. Then, things got a little bit more difficult.

“I should have taken physics,” says Russell. “I had taken all of the astronomy classes that I could, thinking that it was a good way to prepare for astronomy … bad idea. If you take physics, you can pick up the astronomy, but if you take astronomy it’s tough to pick up the physics.”

At the time, U.C. San Diego didn’t offer a Ph.D. program in astronomy or astrophysics, so Russell was forced to pursue a Ph.D. in physics — a subject he had unintentionally neglected during his years of undergraduate studies. “When I took the first departmental physics exam my first year at UCSD, I failed miserably,” says Russell. “I didn’t have anywhere near the background that I needed. So I booked it. Seven days a week for that whole year, learning everything I possibly could about physics.” Russell devoted himself to physics and performed well in his courses, allowing him to secure valuable time working in observatories and gathering astronomical data.

Arrival at Aerospace and the Comet ISON

After six years in the program, Russell received his Ph.D. and went to work as a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University where he put five instruments on two NASA airborne observatories in three years. This hardware experience led to his being hired to work at Aerospace in 1981. “My first question to Aerospace was: ‘will I get to do any astronomy when I come here?’” recalls Russell. “And they said: ‘you’ll get to do some and how much you do will depend on how clever you are at finding things that are applicable to both the astronomy and the applied world.’”

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