R.I.P. Riccardo Giacconi

Riccardo Giacconi receiving the 2003 National Medal of Science
Riccardo Giacconi receiving the 2003 National Medal of Science

On Sunday, December 9 Riccardo Giacconi passed away. He was the father of X-ray astronomy and Nobel Prize in physics in 2002 for his contributions in that field.

Riccardo Giacconi was born on October 6, 1931 in Genoa, Italy. He obtained a degree in physics at the University of Milan with a specialization in the research on cosmic rays. In 1956 he moved to the USA, where he carried out research first with the University of Princeton and then at AS&E (American Science and Engineering), where he started developing the first instruments to detect cosmic X-rays.

In 1962 Riccardo Giacconi discovered the first extraterrestrial X-ray source, named Scorpius X-1. In 1970 he oversaw the launch of NASA’s Uhuru satellite, the first specialized in X-ray astronomy, followed in the following decades by increasingly sophisticated stellites such as the Einstein Observatory (HEAO-2) in 1978, designed while Giacconi was director of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, to NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory in 1999.

Although Riccardo Giacconi is remembered above all for the development of X-ray astronomy, he also worked in other specializations. In particular, in 1981 he became the first director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the center of scientific operations for what was then another pioneering project, the Hubble Space Telescope. Giacconi kept that office until 1993 and directed the search for a solution to correct the primary mirror flaw discovered after Hubble’s activation in space.

After that experience, between 1993 and 1999 Riccardo Giacconi was general director of ESO, directing among other things the construction of the Very Large Telescope (VLT), an observatory on which various instruments were installed over the following years making it one of the best ground-based telescpes in the world.

In 2002 Riccardo Giacconi was awarded the Nobel prize for his pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources. It’s the most famous among the awards he received but there were several others in Italy, in the USA and in other countries. In Italy he also received the honor of Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (Cavaliere di gran croce dell’Ordine al merito della Repubblica italiana) in 2002 and the Italian Medal of Merit for Culture and Art (Medaglia d’oro ai benemeriti della scuola, della cultura e dell’arte) in 2005.

Riccardo Giacconi returned to work with NASA as principal investigator in the Chandra Deep Field-South project of the Chandra X-ray observatory. He leaves a huge legacy as today X-ray astronomy means studying a part of the universe full of violent events that generate those strong electromagnetic emissions such as neutron stars and black holes.

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