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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 6, 2005 | Vol. 35 No. 1
A New Director and a New Era for Hubble's Custodian

Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is located on Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus.

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Mattias "Matt" Mountain, the new director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, appears to revel in the challenges and opportunities that lie before him as he joins a nearly 25-year-old institution clearly in transition mode.

On Sept. 1, Mountain officially took over the helm of STScI, the science operations center for NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the planned James Webb Space Telescope. The institute, located on San Martin Drive on the west side of the Homewood campus, now enters a period where the overachieving and still vibrant Hubble ambles to retirement age and its successor moves closer to reality.

"It's an extraordinary privilege to now lead such a fascinating and diverse organization as the Space Telescope Science Institute," Mountain said. "I am ready to face the challenges which lie ahead and am eager to strengthen the institute's ongoing collaborations with Johns Hopkins University."

Founded in 1981, the Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by AURA — the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy — under contract to NASA. STScI is housed in the Steven Muller Building, named after the university's 10th president, who was instrumental in bringing the institute to Maryland and the Homewood campus.

Currently, the institute is home to planning, scheduling and public outreach activities for the Hubble Space Telescope. Data archive and distribution services for Hubble and other missions are also provided by STScI.

In the future, the institute will operate and manage the James Webb Space Telescope, a large infrared-optimized space telescope scheduled for launch in August 2011. The Webb Telescope is designed to study the earliest galaxies and some of the first stars formed after the Big Bang — objects that have a high redshift from Earth's vantage point and need to be seen in infrared. The telescope will reside in a halo or second Lagrange point orbit, about one million miles from the Earth.

Before joining STScI, Mountain was director of the Gemini Observatory that operates the two 8-meter Gemini telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and in Cerro Pachon, Chile. Mountain is also the telescope scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, a member of the JWST Science Working Group and a visiting professor at the University of Oxford.

In 1992, he became project scientist for the Gemini 8-meter Telescopes Project, based in Tucson, Ariz., and went on to become the director of the project in 1994. During his tenure as director, he had direct responsibility for the construction and commissioning of the two Gemini telescopes. In 1998, he moved to Hawaii and was responsible for the Gemini Observatory, including formulating, implementing and running the operations and development programs of both Gemini 8-meter telescopes. As part of the development program, he built up a world-renowned adaptive optics group to keep the telescopes at the forefront of observational infrared astronomy.

Mountain received his bachelor of science degree in physics in 1978 and his doctorate in astronomy in 1983, both from the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London University.

Jonathan Bagger, chair of the university's Physics and Astronomy Department, said that the institute's search team found an outstanding successor to Steven Beckwith, who had been STScI director since 1998. More than 100 candidates were considered for the director's position.

"[Matt] has a super reputation in astronomy, not only as a scientist but as a manager and builder of telescope facilities," Bagger said. "We look forward to continuing Hopkins' connections with the institute and to strengthening them going forward. One area where I hope we can do even better is to make the connection more transparent for graduate students. Plenty of our people work there for thesis and research projects, but we can probably make the process easier."

STScI and the Physics and Astronomy Department, in fact, have a long history of collaboration and a strong scientific relationship, Bagger said. Many JHU faculty use the space telescope for their research, several STScI staff have faculty appointments at Johns Hopkins, and the Advanced Camera for Surveys, which was installed in the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002, is run out of Physics and Astronomy, with Hopkins faculty member Holland Ford serving as its principal investigator.

Bagger said that another point of contact for collaborations is the National Virtual Observatory project — headed by Alex Szalay, Alumni Centennial Professor at Johns Hopkins — which will unite astronomical databases of many earthbound and orbital observatories, taking advantage of the latest computer technology and data storage and analysis techniques. The goal of the project is to maximize the potential for new scientific insights from the data by making them available in an accessible form to professional researchers, amateur astronomers and students.

Mountain said that he foresees the institute and JHU hosting joint seminars and fellowships.

Mountain's task of managing STScI's transition will hold its challenges, Bagger said, especially in light of questions about the Hubble's reservicing. Due to concerns of astronaut safety in the wake of the Columbia shuttle tragedy in 2003, a planned reservicing mission of Hubble was canceled last year, one that would have included the installation of six fresh gyros, six new batteries, a fine guidance sensor and two advanced science instruments, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph and Wide-Field Camera 3. The goals were to extend Hubble's science life by at least five years and to bring critical new scientific capabilities to the telescope.

If and when the Hubble telescope does get reserviced, Mountain said that there is a vast amount of science and discovery still ahead in terms of observations of galaxy evolution, black holes and other objects in deep space.

"There are enormous discoveries ahead of us," Mountain said.


Public Lectures at STScI

The Space Telescope Science Institute hosts free public lectures at 8 p.m. the first Tuesday of every month in the facility's auditorium. At each, a noted scientist discusses a cosmic topic such as extrasolar planets, stars, galaxies or black holes. Free parking is available.

Sept. 6
Speaker: Ian Jordan, STScI
Title: "The Potential for Direct Imaging of Extrasolar Planets with UMBRAS"

Oct. 4
Speaker: Jim Manning, STScI
Title: "Mars: Opposition Attraction"

Nov. 1
Speaker: Mario Livio, STScI
Title: "The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved"

For more about the talks, go to For more about STScI, go to


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