Science + Technology

McLean to receive American Astronomical Society’s Joseph Weber Award

Professor Ian McLean in front of MOSFIRE
Courtesy of Ian McLean

UCLA professor Ian McLean in front of MOSFIRE under the dome of the Keck I Telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

UCLA physics and astronomy professor Ian McLean has been selected to receive the American Astronomical Society’s 2017 Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation, which is given for outstanding design, invention or significant improvement of instrumentation leading to advances in astronomy.

McLean is being presented the award in “recognition of over 30 years at the forefront of the development of advanced infrared sensor arrays and for his leadership in the design, construction and deployment of innovative infrared instruments that have had widespread and fundamental scientific impact across a broad community,” according to the citation. He will receive the award at the AAS annual meeting in January 2018.

McLean, director of UCLA’s Infrared Laboratory for Astrophysics, is the recipient of many awards and honors throughout his distinguished career, including the Muhlmann Award for Instrumentation from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific last October. He also has an asteroid named after him.

He built the world’s first infrared camera for wide use by astronomers in 1986. Since then, he has built several increasingly sophisticated infrared cameras and spectrometers — which split light into its component colors. UCLA’s infrared laboratory, which McLean founded in 1989, has produced instruments for the W.M. Keck Observatory, Lick Observatory, Gemini Observatory and NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. 

He and his colleagues built a “time machine” that allows scientists to study for the first time the earliest galaxies in the universe. The five-ton instrument, called MOSFIRE (Multi-Object Spectrometer for Infra-Red Exploration), was installed in the Keck I Telescope at the W.M. Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Many of the most crucial components of the planned Thirty Meter Telescope’s Infrared Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) will be designed and built at UCLA’s Infrared Laboratory for Astrophysics.

McLean is also the principal investigator for a research imaging instrument called FLITECAM, on NASA's SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy), a modified 747 SP jetliner that is the world's largest airborne observatory. FLITECAM, which McLean and his colleagues built at UCLA, is a camera that can be converted to a spectrometer electronically, using a computer. It will be used to study planets orbiting other stars and stars eclipsed when an asteroid or comet in the outer part of the solar system passes in front of them.

“When Eric Becklin and I joined forces in 1989 at UCLA, we had a grand vision of how a laboratory devoted to the development of state-of-the-art infrared instruments could enhance the effectiveness of the Keck 10-meter telescopes, and create a major role for UCLA in the nascent Keck community,” McLean said. “Today, we can look back and see our dreams fulfilled.”

Of the four world-class infrared instruments on the twin Keck telescopes today, McLean was principal investigator for two — NIRSPEC (1999) and MOSFIRE (2012) — and his colleague and deputy at the UCLA IR Laboratory, James Larkin, was principal investigator for a third: OSIRIS (2005). McLean and Larkin were co-principal investigators for the detector system on the fourth instrument (NIRC2, led by Caltech).

McLean recounts some of this history in his 2008 book “Electronic Imaging in Astronomy” (Springer).

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