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Lowell Observatory Astronomer Named Director of Telescope Array in Flagstaff

Image Credit: Andrew Holt Frazier (NAU)

Update (June 11, 2018): Dr. van Belle completed his one-year term as NPOI Director, and is now serving as the facility’s Chief Scientist.  The current Director is Dr. Jim Clark, Naval Research Laboratory.

Flagstaff, AZ. – Lowell Observatory astronomer Gerard van Belle has been named the director of the Navy Precision Optical Interferometer (NPOI) in Flagstaff, Arizona, effective May 1. Van Belle has been on the Lowell faculty since August of 2011 and is a noted world leader in astrophysical research and remote sensing utilizing telescope arrays such as NPOI.

NPOI is an advanced telescope array at Lowell’s Anderson Mesa dark sky site, roughly 10 miles outside of Flagstaff, an International Dark Sky city Lowell operates the facility in partnership with the Naval Research Lab (NRL) and the U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO).   NPOI links multiple optical telescopes spread over a site many football fields in size to form a single, larger synthetic telescope.  It is the largest such operational facility in the world, with potential telescope separations up to 432 meters and the only one expressly built for the challenge of visible light operations.

The directorship of NPOI has rotated between USNO, NRL, and Lowell over the lifetime of the facility.  The previous director of NPOI, Donald J. Hutter, retired from his position at the USNO on April 30.  During his 13-year tenure as director, NPOI achieved a number of ground-breaking observations, including the first-ever direct detection of stellar gravity darkening (a latitude-dependent brightness effect on the surface of rapidly-rotating stars), characterization of the disks around Be stars, and thousands of measurements of stellar diameters and binary star orbits.

Van Belle has a long history in the development of telescope instrumentation. Before working at Lowell, he served as the instrument scientist for the PRIMA and MATISSE instruments for the European Southern Observatory’s VLTI facility (2007-2011) and an instrument architect for the Keck Interferometer (1996-2002). He has conducted scientific research on the IR Optical Telescope Array (IOTA), the Palomar Testbed Interferometer (PTI), and Georgia State University’s Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) Array.

Van Belle’s pioneering stellar surface imaging work at PTI won him the inaugural Edward Stone research award at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 2001, for the first-ever direct detection of stellar oblateness on rapidly rotating stars.

Van Belle is the principal investigator of the recently announced $3.27M PALANTIR upgrade to NPOI. He said, “There’s been some revolutionary new advances in optics and electronics, and by implementing those at NPOI – and capitalizing on the considerable existing infrastructure of the facility – we should be able to marry the high resolution of NPOI with faint-object sensitivity.  We’ll have the premier observatory of its kind for achieving some of the defining astronomical discoveries of the 21st century.”