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NASA Renames Satellite in Honor of Pioneering Researcher
NASA Renames Satellite in Honor of Pioneering Researcher
11 Feb 2003
(Source: NASA)

NASA renamed an orbiting satellite, called the Microwave Anisotropy Probe, in honor of David T. Wilkinson, a pioneer in physics and cosmology, who died in September 2002.

The re-christened Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), launched in June 2001, observes the oldest light in the universe, called the cosmic microwave background (CMB). Patterns imprinted in this light, approximately 400,000 years after the big bang, reveal details about the age of the universe, the era of first starlight, and other key properties.

"Dave's science often took
the path less traveled.
Dave embodied so much of
what we aspire to as
scientists and as people."
Dave's science often took the path less traveled<BR>Dave embodied so much of what we<BR>aspire to as scientists and as people.

Wilkinson, a professor at Princeton University, N.J., was instrumental in defining CMB research from the days of its discovery in 1964 to his work as the WMAP Instrument Scientist, 38 years later. Both WMAP and its predecessor, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), owe their existence in no small part to Wilkinson, whose decades' long research, enthusiasm, and tireless efforts played a major role in bringing these missions to life.

"Dave was a man of great integrity, an outstanding scientist, and a wonderful colleague," said Dr. Charles L. Bennett, WMAP Principal Investigator from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "He loved to do science and he loved to teach science. As a teacher he was inspiring. As a scientist he set high standards and served as the conscience of the field," he said.

WMAP builds on the COBE legacy by measuring the tiny temperature fluctuations in the CMB with much higher resolution, sensitivity, and accuracy. The mission aims at understanding the most fundamental aspects of the universe that have given rise to the structure of galaxies observed on the largest scales.

In 1963, Wilkinson set out on a quest to find the predicted cosmic microwave background afterglow radiation from the big bang. As an assistant professor at Princeton in the early 1960s, Wilkinson and a colleague confirmed the 1964 discovery of the CMB by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of the Bell Telephone Laboratories. Wilkinson continued on to make increasingly more impressive measurements that put the big bang theory and ideas about the evolution of the universe on solid ground.

"Dave's science often took the path less traveled, with results that have seeded large and active fields," said a 2003 memorial in Physics Today. "He showed by example that the experimenter's conscience can be the best defense against bad science. Dave embodied so much of what we aspire to as scientists and as people. His effortless charm and natural affinity for people, his generosity with time, and his total absence of self-promotion, brought out the best in all who were privileged to know him."

Wilkinson served the Physics Department Chairman from 1987 to 1990. He loved to teach and was awarded the Princeton President's Award for Distinguished Teaching. Wilkinson, who dedicated his professional life to answering the most profound questions of our Universe, died on September 5, 2002, at the age of 67 after a long struggle with cancer.

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