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Newkirk, Gordon Allen Jr.



  • Existence: 1928-1985

Gordon Allen Newkirk, Jr., was born in Orange, New Jersey on June 12, 1928. His father was an electrical engineer for Public Service Electric and Gas. While a sophomore in high school, Newkirk became interested in astronomy and built a 6" mirror telescope and spectrograph. In 1944, he began corresponding with Bart Bok at Harvard University, inquiring about the profession of astronomy and which college he should attend. In the same year he entered the Westinghouse Science Talent Searches with an expansion cloud chamber which he built using a Silex coffee lid. He was one of the top 40 winners and was rewarded with $400 cash. Newkirk began his college career in the Astronomy Department at Harvard University in the fall of 1946. At that time, the Astronomy Department consisted of Bok, Shapley, Whipple, Menzel, and Gaposchlein. His interest in solar work began while working at the Agassiz Observatory where he learned to operate the telescope, the catalog camera and the meteor camera. He also built a guider for a photospheric camera. In 1950, Newkirk attended the University of Michigan for his graduate work where he was a research assistant at the McMath-Hulbert Observatory. In 1953, he wrote his thesis which was entitled "Carbon Monoxide in the Solar Atmosphere." Upon earning his PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Michigan, Newkirk was drafted by the United States Army. After completing basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, he was assigned as an astronomer to the Meteorological Group of the Signal Corps Engineering Labs in New Jersey. While calculating the effects of wind response on rockets, Newkirk became interested in atmospheric optics. He began measuring the brightness of the sky near the sun and the light scattering properties of the atmosphere. Encouraged by his findings, he began to correspond with Jack Evans and Walt Roberts at the High Altitude Observatory (HAO) in Colorado. In the fall of 1954, Newkirk was reassigned to Boulder, Colorado to assemble the visual sky photometer instrument, which could photographically record the atmosphere at varying levels. Upon being discharged from the Army in 1955, Newkirk accepted a senior position at the High Altitude Observatory (HAO) where he began working with Gerard Wlerick on the development of a coronograph that was to be used to study the scattered light from the electron corona. His model of the electron corona, based on the interpretation of coronal photometry data from Climax, was published in 1958 and remains a standard reference model. In 1957, he became interested in measuring sky brightness as a function of altitude using a sky photometer attached to a manned balloon. In the summer of 1959, the instrument was launched from Strato Bowl, South Dakota to an elevation of 40,000 feet and produced a dozen observations. In the fall of 1959, HAO inherited the gondola from the Stratoscope I. Stratoscope I was built by Princeton physicist Martin Schwarzchild. Newkirk planned an unmanned stratospheric balloon experiment to raise a coronograph, Coronoscope I, above the dust and smoke of the lower atmosphere for several hours of continuous operation. After taking measurements of sky brightness, the gondola would be returned to the ground by a parachute. In the fall of 1960, after a failed first attempt, the Coronoscope I had two successful flights reaching an elevation of 80,000 feet outside of Minneapolis. The Coronoscope II, featuring a multiple occulting disk to operate in the near infrared, was launched on a mylar-scrim balloon at the National Scientific Balloon Facility in Palestine, Texas in March of 1964 and produced the first images of the outer corona without a solar eclipse. In June of 1970, Newkirk retrofitted the orbital coronograph he had built for Skylab and flew it on a balloon. In 1973, the orbital ATM coronograph was launched on the Skylab satellite. In 1980, the coronograph was launched on the Solar Maximum Mission (SMM) satellite. Newkirk went to Bolivia in 1966 for the first deployment of his white light coronal camera to record a solar eclipse. Over a nineteen-year span, Newkirk's radially-graded coronal camera produced some of the most spectacular and useful pictures ever taken of the white-light corona at eclipse. In addition to his pioneering achievements in designing and perfecting instruments for observing the solar corona, Newkirk published other papers on solar corona, including a benchmark depiction of coronal magnetic fields, derived analytically from magnetograph observations of the surface of the sun. He also wrote about the atmosphere of Venus, the scattering of light and the distribution of small particles in the upper atmosphere, solar flares, the paradox of the faint, early sun, the solar constant, the solar cycle and solar seismology, the interpretation of cosmogenic nuclides in polar ice cores, and the scattering of galactic cosmic rays. Newkirk also discovered a comet. Between 1956 and 1985, Dr. Newkirk was a professor at the University of Colorado in the Department of AstroGeophysics and Department of Physics and Astrophysics. He also was a longstanding member of many scientific societies. In 1972, he was elected chairman of the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society. Subsequently, Newkirk chaired the committee that established the Hale Prize. In 1976, Newkirk was elected as President of the Commission on Solar Activity of the International Astronomical Union and member of the Geophysics Research Board fo the National Academy of Sciences. In 1968, Newirk succeeded Walter Orr Roberts and John Firor as director of HAO and Associate Director of NCAR, serving until 1979. On December 21, 1985 he died after a long battle with cancer.
Author: Diane Rabson

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Gordon A. Newkirk, Jr. Papers

Identifier:  - 04-02-GAN
Scope and Contents The Gordon Newkirk Papers document the work of Dr. Newkirk as an astrophysicist and director of the High Altitude Observatory. This collection contains correspondence, data, photocopies, photographs, publications, reports, lectures, research materials, maps, and manuscripts.