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Gerard Kuiper
Picture of Gerard Kuiper
Gerard Kuiper
(1905 - 1973)
Astronomer, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory
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Kuiper (center) founded the Lunar and Planetary Lab in Arizona in 1960.

"Kuiper studied the planets... at a time when they were scarcely of interest to other astronomers. But with new telescopes and instrumentation, he showed that there were great things to discover, which is as true today as it was then."

-Dr. Bill McKinnon, co-investigator on New Horizons, the first mission to the Kuiper Belt, and professor of Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.

Gerard Kuiper is regarded by many as the father of modern planetary science. He is well known for his many discoveries, including:

  • 1947: He correctly predicted carbon dioxide is a major component of the atmosphere of Mars.
  • 1947: He correctly predicted the rings of Saturn are composed of particles of ice.
  • 1947: He discovered Miranda, the fifth moon of Uranus.
    Gerard's work laid the foundation
    for the spacecraft missions of the
    late 20th and early 21st centuries.
    Gerard Kuiper
  • 1949: He discovered Nereid orbiting Neptune.
  • 1949: He proposed an influential theory of the origin of our solar system, suggesting that the planets had formed by the condensation of a large cloud of gas around the sun.
  • 1951: He proposed the existence of what is now called the Kuiper Belt, a disk-shaped region of minor planets outside the orbit of Neptune, which also is a source of short-period comets.
  • 1956: He proved that Mars' polar icecaps are composed of frozen water and not of carbon dioxide as they had been previously assumed.
  • 1964: He predicted what the surface of the Moon would be like to walk on -- "like crunchy snow". This was verified by astronaut Neil Armstrong in 1969.

Gerard played an influential role in the development of infrared airborne astronomy in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1967 the NASA four engine jet Convair 990 aircraft with an onboard telescope became available for infrared studies at an altitude of 40,000 feet. Gerard used it extensively for spectroscopy of the sun, stars, and planets, discovering things about them that could not be found from ground-based observatories. The Kuiper Airborne Observatory (1974) was named in his honor, as were craters on the Moon, Mercury and Mars.

Gerard was a demanding individual whose routine included hard work and long hours.

"He worked extremely hard himself, and he demanded the same dedication, devotion and seriousness from everybody around him," said scientist Dale Cruikshank. "If they didn't give that, or if they didn't perform, they ran afoul of him. That applied to students. It also applied to fellow faculty, technical associates and engineers -- anybody around him. But at the same time, he had a humorous side, a warm side, a personal side that was in some ways appealing."

One hundred years after Gerard's birth the New Horizons mission is on its way to the Kuiper Belt region of our solar system.

"Kuiper was one of the first scientists to focus almost exclusively on exploring the properties of planets," said Dr. Richard Binzel, New Horizons co-investigator and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "His work laid the foundation for the spacecraft missions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries."

Gerard was born in the Netherlands in 1905 and was educated at Leiden University as an astronomer with a doctoral dissertation on binary stars. Gerard came to the United States in 1933 and obtained American citizenship in 1937.

He worked at Lick Observatory, Harvard, Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona. The Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, a research and educational unit in which many planetary scientists have been trained, was established under his guidance at the University of Arizona.

Gerard died in 1973 from a heart attack while on vacation in Mexico with his wife, Sarah Fuller. He was 68.

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Last Updated: 3 January 2013

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Last Updated: 3 Jan 2013