An unauthorized history of (infrared) astronomy at the U.S. Air Force Geophysics Laboratory

AFGLPhillips LabAF Research Lab

On three occasions I've conducted astronomy research in the same building at Hanscom Air Force Base next to Lexington, Massachusetts, and each time I've worked at a laboratory with a different name. But it's always been the same lab, and it's always been at Hanscom Air Force Base.

The U.S. Air Force created the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories at Hanscom Field in 1949. Scientists and engineers at this lab studied many aspects of geophysics for the Air Force, and in 1974, it became the Air Force Geophysics Laboratory (AFGL).

Infrared astronomy

Both before and after this redesignation, astronomers at the lab were surveying the infrared sky using telescopes launched on a series of sounding rockets under the direction of Russ Walker, then Tom Murdock, and finally Stephan Price. They released preliminary lists of sources from the survey while the lab was still the Cambridge Research Lab., so many astronomers from the 1970s refer to these sources as CRL this or that. But the first complete survey, released in 1976, was the AFGL Four Color Infrared Sky Survey, so most astronomers use the prefix "AFGL" to refer to the same objects. Steve Price continued to expand and improve the survey with the launch of sounding rockets into the 1980s, releasing the Revised AFGL Infrared Sky Survey Catalog in 1983.

During the 1980s, the Air Force Geophysics Lab. funded programs at three observatories to follow up the AFGL catalog with ground-based photometry. They also continued to develop instrumentation, including the first long-slit spectrometer for thermal infrared wavelengths. In the summer of 1987, I came to the AFGL as a summer research associate to help with the development of their spectrometer and its use at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory. This project evolved into my Ph.D. dissertation.

So it shouldn't be too surprising that my first post-doctoral fellowship in 1992 was with Steve Price's group at Hanscom. In 1991, though, the Air Force had changed the name of the lab again. This time, AFGL was merged with the Air Force Weapons Lab at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, as the Air Force Phillips Laboratory. The old AFGL at Hanscom formed the Geophysics Directorate of Phillips Lab. By this time, Price's group was heavily involved in development of the Air Force's infrared satellite, known as the Midcourse Space Experiment, or MSX.

I returned to Hanscom and Steve Price's astronomy group for a third time in 2000 to help with their analysis of spectroscopic data from the Infrared Space Observatory. And not surprisingly, the name of the lab had changed again. In 1997, Phillips Lab. became the Space Vehicles Directorate of the Air Force Research Lab. Sadly, the new Air Force website has virtually nothing from the old AFGL site.

Other astronomy at AFGL

The group I worked with was only one of many. Don Eckhardt, who retired from AFGL in 1994 (it was Phillips Lab. by then) sent me some background on two other important contributions made by the lab.

AFCRL built and operated the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope at Sacramento Peak near Sunspot, NM. They eventually turned the telescope over to the National Science Foundation. It is now part of the National Solar Observatory, which is administered by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in coooperation with the NSF.

Dr. Eckhardt was the principle investigator for the ALSEP experiment deployed by the Apollo 11 crew. AFCRL built a 60-inch telescope near Tucson, AZ for laser ranging as part of that experiment. The telescope was eventually moved to Australia, but not before the AFCRL physical ephemeris of the Moon became the standard used for the lunar tables in the Astronomical Almanac.

The end of AFGL

After all of the name changes, the tenure of the old AFGL at Hanscom Air Force Base came to an end in 2011. The Air Force, reorganizing once again, moved all remaining functions of the Space Vehicles Directorate from Hanscom to Kirtland. Many of the scientists and staff moved to New Mexico, but many others stayed in the Boston area and either retired or found new jobs. And so ends a long and distinguished history.

There must be more!

If you know of any omissions on this page which should be corrected, send them to G. Sloan!

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Last modified 12 May, 2017. © Gregory C. Sloan.