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Institute of Advanced Study

Dr Robert Fosbury

“The IAS staff have created a wonderful interdisciplinary environment of a kind that I have not experienced before. ”

Dr Bob Fosbury, European Southern Observatory

IAS Fellow at Josephine Butler College, Durham University (October - December 2013)

Dr Bob Fosbury is Emeritus Astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), an intergovernmental organisation with headquarters near Munich that builds and operates major astronomical observatories in Chile. For almost three decades he has been associated with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope project and, until the end of 2010, led the European team based at ESO that worked with NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore on the operation of the telescope and its scientific instruments. In 2010 he co-organised a major conference and exhibition in Venice that celebrated the achievements of the observatory and the astronauts that had been a vital part of its evolution into a scientific legend.

With an early career based at both the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) at Herstmonceux and the University of Sussex, Dr Fosbury has worked as an astrophysicist at the Anglo-Australian Observatory based in Sydney and, in the late 1970s, at ESO when it was based at CERN in Geneva. He returned to the RGO in the early 1980s during the establishment of the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma in the Canary Islands. Dr Fosbury has published extensively on astrophysical topics ranging from the outer atmospheres of Sun-like stars, supermassive black holes in the cores of galaxies, and star and galaxy formation in the very young Universe. During these times, he remained alert to the need for and the possibilities of realising successful outreach activities. This has resulted in books, documentary films and the pioneering of high quality (HD TV) podcasts for both Hubble and ESO. In collaboration with various organisations, especially in the Munich area, he delivers public lectures on astronomical topics.

In parallel with his professional scientific interests and activities, Dr Fosbury has maintained a broader view of light and colour which he has expressed through photography, spectroscopy and collaboration with artists (see: ). A recently developed and continuing project has been the publication of digital spectroscopy and associated photography on the public website flickr . These images have rapidly increased in popularity and many of the items have been embedded at other internet locations. An interesting aspect of this is the development of cross-disciplinary communication leading on occasions to collaborative interdisciplinary research.

While at the IAS in Durham Dr Fosbury's intention is to switch his perspective from that of an astronomer reaching towards the distant Universe to that of a human - or a member of an alien civilisation - looking from afar at our home planet, ‘the pale blue dot’, and asking what could be learned from a study of ‘Colours from Earth.’ Explaining the nature of the 'blue' in this description of our Earth turns out to be more complex and interesting than one might imagine and leads to a practical interest into how Earth-like planets around other stars might appear to our telescopes when we are able to examine them with the next generations of huge telescopes.

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Hubble in orbit: the third decade

2nd December 2013, 17:30 to 18:30, Events Hall, Josephine Butler College, Dr Robert Fosbury (European Southern Observatory)

The Hubble Space Telescope reached its twentieth orbital birthday on 24 April 2010. During the previous May, the spacecraft had been subject to the most intense overhaul of its life with astronauts from the Space Shuttle Atlantis performing engineering feats far beyond what was originally envisaged for orbital servicing. In addition to fitting two new state-of-the-art instruments, two of the existing - and still extremely powerful - instruments that had suffered electronic failures, were repaired during the most complex human process that had yet been performed in space. Along with new batteries and gyroscopes, the telescope was left some hundred times more powerful than when it was launched in 1990.

This is the story of Hubble as it progresses through its third decade, looking back on the revolution in astrophysics that it had achieved and forward to what it is enabling now in its probings of the early history of the universe and through to the study of the atmospheres of extrasolar planets.

Listen to this lecture in full.  

Dr Bob Fosbury Publications


More than one thousand planets have been discovered outside our solar system and the search techniques at our disposal are becoming sufficiently sensitive to find the small, rocky planets that may resemble Earth. How can we begin to characterise such objects by examining their surface and atmospheric properties and, eventually, their likelihood of harbouring life? Observing such small planets with geometrically-thin atmospheres will be extraordinarily difficult and so, in order to design optimum strategies, it is useful to examine and assess analogous observations of our own Earth. The Moon can be used as a convenient ‘mirror’ to give us views of reflected sunlight from a complete Earth hemisphere: a technique that was understood by Leonardo da Vinci early in the sixteenth century. Also, during a total lunar eclipse, the darkened, ‘copper-coloured’ Moon allows us to sample the long ‘tangential’ path that sunlight takes as it grazes the Earth’s limb, allowing us to read the signatures of the atmospheric gases. Both of these techniques are described in this article.

Insights Paper