Frank James Low

Frank James Low


Date of Birth
November 23, 1933
Date of Death
June 11, 2009

Frank Low was born in Mobile, Alabama, and raised in Houston, Texas. He earned his B.S. at Yale University and his Ph.D. in 1959 at Rice University, both in physics. He was a solid state physicist who became a leader in the new field of infrared astronomy after inventing the gallium-doped germanium bolometer in 1961. This new detector allowed the extension of observations to much longer wavelengths than previously possible. Shortly afterward he left Texas Instruments, Inc., where he had made his breakthrough, to further develop the bolometer and associated instrumentation at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. After that he worked at Rice University and, from 1965, at the University of Arizona, holding dual appointments at the two universities for a number of years. He was also president of Infrared Laboratories, Inc., which he founded in 1967 to make infrared detectors and cryostats for observatories, and which now makes infrared microscopes as well.

He and colleagues used his new bolometer in the 1960s to make photometric measurements of the Moon, planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and a quasar in the few wavelength ranges, e.g., 2.2 and 8.5-14 micrometers, where the atmosphere is partially transparent. They showed that Jupiter and Saturn emit more energy than they receive from the Sun and that some galaxies are powerful sources of infrared radiation, accounting for much of the far infrared background. Next Low and Carl Gillespie tried extending observations into the far infrared, using a helium-cooled germanium bolometer with a small telescope on a U.S. Navy bomber. When that proved successful, Low pioneered open-port airborne astronomy, mounting a 12-inch telescope on a Learjet. Flying above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere, this little telescope was used to make far-infrared observations of Jupiter, Saturn and Venus, and of nebulae, including star-forming regions, as well as galaxies.

Low was one of the leaders in building a much larger flying observatory, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, which carried a 0.9-m telescope to an altitude of up to 14 km from 1974 to 1995. He proposed and then joined with other American, British, and Dutch astronomers to design and build the Infrared Astronomy Satellite (IRAS), which made the first survey of the infrared sky from space in 1983. He also developed instrumentation for the Spitzer Space Telescope, and received an award for his breakthrough in shrinking the cooling system for the detectors. Years after his formal retirement in 1996, he continued to work with other astronomers on observations of everything from protoplanetary systems to active galactic nuclei, using Spitzer.

Other awards

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Rumford Prize, 1986
American Astronomical Society, Helen Warner Prize, 1968; Joseph Weber Award for Astronomical Instrumentation, 2003.
National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Jansky Lectureship2006.

Biographical materials

Rieke, George, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 2014.
Tucker, Wallace & Karen Tucker, The Cosmic Inquirers: Modern Telescopes and Their Makers (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1986), Chapter 4.


Arizona Daily Star/Tucson Citizen, 17 June 2009
Maugh, Thomas H., II, Los Angeles Times, 25 June 2009.
McCarthy, Don, Bull. Am. Astron. Soc. 43, 017 (2011).
Overbye, Dennis, New York Times, 20 June 2009.
Rieke, George, Physics Today 63, 3, 65-66 (March 2010).
Rosen, Raphael, Spitzer Space Telescope website.

Academic genealogy


Named after him

Minor Planet #12142 Franklow
The Kleinmann-Low Nebula (with Douglas E. Kleinmann)


Papers, etc.

There is a two-part oral history interview by Patrick McCray at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives.

Other References: Historical

Allen, David A., “Infrared Astronomy: An Assessment,” QJRAS 18, 188-98 (1977).

Allen, David A., Infrared, the New Astronomy (Wiley, NY, 1975).

Clavin, Whitney, “And The Laurel Goes To... The Spitzer Space Telescope!” Spitzer Science Center Press Release, 24 February 2004.

Dolci, Wendy Whiting, “Milestones in Airborne Astronomy—From the 1920’s to the Present,” 1997 World Aviation Congress, Anaheim, CA, Oct. 13-16, 1997 (American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Society of Automotive Engineers, 1997).

Hearnshaw, J. B., The Measurement of Starlight: Two Centuries of Astronomical Photometry (Cambridge University Press, NY, 1996).

Low, Frank, “Obituary: Frederick Gillett (1937-2000),” Nature 411, 906 (2001).

Low, F.J. & H.H. Aumann, “Fred Gillett’s Role in the Discovery of Planetary Disks: a Commemorative History, ” in Larry Caroff, L. Juleen Moon, Dana Backman, & Elizabeth Praton, eds., Debris Disks and the Formation of Planets: A Symposium in Memory of Fred Gillett (ASP Conference Series, vol. 324, 2004), pp. 3-8.

Low, Frank J., G.H. Rieke, & R.D. Gehrz, “The Beginning of Modern Infrared Astronomy—1960 to 1983,” Ann. Rev. Astr. & Astrophys. 45, 43-75 (2007).

Rieke, G.H., “Infrared Detector Arrays for Astronomy,” Ann. Rev. Astr. & Astrophys. 45, 77-115 (2007).

Rowan-Robinson, Michael, “Presidential Address: Terahertz Molecular Line Astronomy,” Astronomy & Geophysics 48, 4.31-4.34 (2007).

University of Aizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, “History”

Waysand, Georges, “A Modest Prehistory of Low Temperature Detectors,” Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section A: Accelerators, Spectrometers, Detectors and Associated Equipment 520, 4-10 (2004).

Search ADS for works about Low

Other References: Scientific

Low, F.J. & C.F. Squire, “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance in LiF,” J. Phys. Chem. Solids 5, 85-88 (1957).

Low, F.J. & H.E. Rorschach, “Nuclear Spin Relaxation in Liquid Helium 3,” Phys. Rev. 120, 1111-19 (1960).

Low, F.J., “Gallium-Doped Germanium Resistance Thermometers,” Advances in Cryogenic Engineering 7, 514-516 (1961).

Low, F.J., “Low-Temperature Germanium Bolometers,” J. Opt. Soc. Am. 51, 1300-04 (1961).

Low, F.J. & A.R. Hoffman, “The Detectivity of Cryogenic Bolometers,” Applied Optics 2, 649-50 (1963).

Low, Frank J. & Harold L. Johnson, “Stellar Photometry at 10 μ,” Ap.J. 139, 1130-34 (1964).

Low, Frank J., “Lunar Observations at λ 10 μ and 1.2 mm,” Astronomical Journal 69, 143 (1964).

Savage, William R. & Frank J. Low, “Metal Microscope and Dewar System for Field Emission Studies,” Rev. Sci. Instr. 35, 848-50 (1964).

Low, F.J., “Infrared Brightness Temperature of Saturn,” Astronomical Journal 69, 550-51 (1964).

Low, F.J., “The Infrared Brightness of α Leonis and γ Orionis,” Ap.J. 141, 326-27 (1965).

Low, F.J. & R.I. Mitchell, “New Infrared Photometry of ε Aurigae,” Ap.J. 141, 327-28 (1965).

Low, F.J. & H.L. Johnson, “The Spectrum of 3C 273,” Ap.J. 141, 336-38 (1965).

Low, F.J., “The Performance of Thermal Detection Radiometers at 1.2 mm,” Proc. IEEE 53, 516 (1965).

Low, Frank J., “Planetary Radiation at Infrared and Millimeter Wavelengths,” Lowell Obs. Bull. 6, 184-87 (1965).

Low, Frank J., “Lunar Nighttime Temperatures Measured at 20 Microns, ” Ap.J. 142, 806-08 (1965).

Johnson, Harold L., Frank J. Low, & David Steinmetz, “Infrared Observations of the Neugebauer-Martz-Leighton ‘Infrared Star’ in Cygnus,” Ap.J. 142, 808-10 (1965).

Low, Frank J. & Bruce J. Smith, “Infra-Red Observations of a Preplanetary System,” Nature 212, 675 (1966).

Low, Frank J., “The Infrared Brightness Temperature of Uranus,” Ap.J. 146, L326-L27 (1966).

Kleinmann, D.E. & F.J. Low, “Discovery of an Infrared Nebula in Orion,” Ap.J. 149, L1-L4 (1967).

Gillett, F.C., F.J. Low, & W.A. Stein, “Infrared Observations of the Planetary Nebula NGC 7027,” Ap.J. 149, L97-L100 (1967).

Low, Frank J. & Wallace H. Tucker, “Contribution of Infrared Galaxies to the Cosmic Background,” Phys. Rev. Lett. 21, 1538-41 (1968).

Low, F.J., “Observations of Quasars and Cool Stars,” in Peter J. Brancazio & A.G.W. Cameron, eds., Infrared Astronomy (Gordon & Breach, NY, 1968), p. 41.

Low, Frank J., “Infrared Astrophysics,” Science 164, 501-05 (1969).

Woolf, N.J., W.F. Hoffmann, C.L. Frederick & F.J. Low, “A Far Infrared Sky Survey,” Phil. Trans. Roy. Sci. London 264, 267-71 (1969).

Aumann, H.H., C.M. Gillespie, Jr., & F.J. Low, “The Internal Powers and Effective Temperatures of Jupiter and Saturn,” Ap.J. 157, L69-L72 (1969).

Low, F. J., D.E. Kleinmann, F.F. Forbes, & H.H. Aumann, “The Infrared Spectrum, Diameter, and Polarization of the Galactic Nucleus,” Ap.J. 157, L97-L101 (1969).

Low, F.J., “Infrared Astronomy Applications,” in W.H. Hogan, and T.S. Moss, eds., Cryogenics and Infrared Detection (Boston Technical Publishing, Inc., Cambridge, MA, 1970).

Low, F.J., H.H. Aumann, & C.M. Gillespie, “Closing Astronomy’s Last Frontier—Far Infrared,” Astronautics & Aeronautics 8, 26-69 (1970).

Aumann, H.H. & F.J. Low, “Far-Infrared Observations of the Galactic Center,” Ap.J. 159, L159-L164 (1970).

Mendell, W.W. & F.J. Low, “Low-resolution Differential Drift Scans of the Moon at 22 Microns,” J. Geophys. Res. 75, 3319-24 (1970).

Low, F. J. & K.S. Krishna Swamy, “Narrow-band Infrared Photometry of Alpha Ori,” Nature 227, 1333-34 (1970).

Kleinmann, D.E. & F.J. Low, “Observations of Infrared Galaxies,” Ap.J. 159, L165-L172 (1970).

Low, Frank J., “The Infrared-Galaxy Phenomenon,” Ap.J. 159, L173-L177 (1970).

Geisel, S.L., D.E. Kleinmann, & F.J. Low, “Infrared Emission of Novae,” Ap.J. 161, L101-L104 (1970).

Low, F. J. & H.H. Aumann, “Observations of Galactic and Extragalactic Sources Between 50 and 300 Microns,” Ap.J. 162, L79-L85 (1970).

Harper, D.A. & F.J. Low, “Far-Infrared Emission from H II Regions,” Ap.J. 165, L9-L13 (1971).

Rieke, G.H. & F.J. Low, “Map of the Galactic Nucleus at 10 µm,” Nature 233, 53-54 (1971).

Meinel, A.B., R.R. Shannon, F.L. Whipple, and F J. Low, “A Large Multiple Mirror Telescope (MMT) project,” Optical Engineering 11, 2, 33-37 (1972).

Rieke, G.H. & F.J. Low, “Infrared Photometry of Extragalactic Sources,” Ap.J. 176, L95-L100 (1972).

Harper, D.A., Jr. & F.J. Low, “Far-Infrared Observations of Galactic Nuclei,” Ap.J. 182, L89-L93 (1973).

Mendell, W.W. & F. J. Low, “Preliminary Results of the Apollo 17 Infrared Scanning Radiometer,” Earth, Moon, and Planets 9, 97-103 (1974).

Low, F.J., & G.H. Rieke, “The Instrumentation and Techniques of Infrared Photometry,” Methods of Experimental Physics 12A, 415-62 (1974).

Low, F.J., “Highlights of Infrared Astronomy,” in William L. Wolfe, ed., Long-wavelength Infrared; Proceedings of the Seminar, San Diego, Calif., August 21, 22, 1975. (SPIE, Palos Verdes Estates, CA, 1975), 67-68.

Mendell, W.W. & F.J. Low, “Infrared Orbital Mapping of Lunar Features,” in Proceedings of the 6th Lunar Sci. Conf., Houston, Tex., March 17-21, 1975, vol. 3 (Pergamon, NY, 1975), pp. 2711-19.

Rieke, G.H. & F.J. Low, “The Nucleus of NGC 253,” Ap.J. 197, 17-23 (1975).

McCarthy, D.W. & F.J. Low, “Initial Results of Spatial Interferometry at 5 microns,” Ap.J. 202, L37-L40 (1975).

Armstrong, K.R., R.B. Minton, G.H. Rieke, & F.J.; Low, “Jupiter at Five Microns,” Icarus 29, 287-98 (1976).

McCarthy, D.W., F.J. Low, & R.R. Howell, “Angular Diameter Measurements of Alpha Orionis, VY Canis Majoris, and IRC + 10216 at 8.3, 10.2, and 11.1 micrometers,” Ap.J. 214, L85-L89 (1977).

Low, F.J., C.A. Beichman, F.C. Gillett, J.R. Houck, G. Neugebauer, D.E. Langford, R.G. Walker, & R.H. White, “Cryogenic Telescope on the Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS),” in Richard A. Mollicone and Irving J. Spiro, eds., Infrared Technology IX, SPIE Proceedings Vol. 430 (SPIE, Bellingham, WA, 1983), 288-96.

Rieke, G. H., M.J. Lebofsky, & F.J. Low, “An absolute photometric system at 10 and 20 μm,” Astronomical Journal 90 900-06 (1985).

Sykes, Mark V., Larry A. Lebofsky, Donald M. Hunten, & Frank Low, “The Discovery of Dust Trails in the Orbits of Periodic Comets, ” Science 232, 1115-17 (1986).

Young, Erick T., G.H. Rieke, Frank J. Low, E.E. Haller, & J.W. Beeman, “Ga:Ge array development,” in Craig R. McCreight, ed., Proceedings of the Third Infrared Detector Technology Workshop held at Moffett Field, CA, 7-9 Feb. 1989 (NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA., 1989), 125-33.

Paley, Elizabeth S., Frank J. Low, John T. McGraw, Roc M. Cutri, & Hans-Walter Rix, “An Infrared/optical Investigation of 100 Micron ‘Cirrus’” Ap.J. 376, 335-41 (1991).

Low, F.J. & G.H. Rieke, “The Instrumentation and Techniques of Infrared Photometry [excerpt] (in Methods of Experimental Physics 1974),” in William Livingston and Brian J. Thompson, eds., Selected Papers on Instrumentation in Astronomy (SPIE Optical Engineering Press, Bellingham, WA, 1993), p. 52 (1993).

Low, Frank J. & Roc M. Cutri, “Infrared Cirrus, What Have We Learned?” Infrared Physics & Technology 35, 291-301 (1994).

Cutri, Roc M., John P. Huchra, Frank J. Low, Robert L. Brown, & Paul A. Vanden Bout, “IRAS F15307+3252: A Hyperluminous Infrared Galaxy at Z = 0.93,” Ap.J. 424, L65-L68 (1994).

Hines, Dean C., Gary D. Schmidt, Paul S. Smith, Roc M. Cutri, & Frank J. Low, “The Buried QSO in IRAS F15307+3252 and the Nature of Hyperluminous Infrared Galaxies,” Ap.J. 450, L1-L4 (1995).

Nakagawa, Takao, Yasuo Doi, Yukari Yamashita Yui, Haruyuki Okuda, Kenji Mochizuki, Hiroshi Shibai, Tetsuo Nishimura. & Frank J. Low, “Deficit of Far-Infrared [C II] Line Emission toward the Galactic Center,” Ap.J. 455, L35-L38 (1995).

Beichman, C.A., T.J. Chester, M. Skrutskie, F.J. Low, & F. Gillett, “Characteristics of the 2MASS Prototype Survey,” PASP 110, 480-89 (1998).

Lowrance, Patrick J., Chris McCarthy, E. E. Becklin, B. Zuckerman, Glenn Schneider, R. A. Webb, Dean C. Hines, J. Davy Kirkpatrick, David W. Koerner, Frank Low, Roland Meier, Marcia Rieke, Bradford A. Smith, Richard J. Terrile, and Rodger I. Thompson, “A Candidate Substellar Companion to CD -33°7795 (TWA 5), ” Ap.J. 512, L69-L72 (1999).

Low, F.J., G. Schneider, & G. Neugebauer, “High Spatial Resolution Hubble Space Telescope NICMOS Observations of Markarian 231,” PASP 116, 797-800 (2004).

Rieke, George H., et al, “On-orbit Performance of the MIPS Instrument,” Proc. SPIE 5487, 50-61 (2004).

Werner, M.W., et al, “The Spitzer Space Telescope Mission,” Ap.J. Supp. 154, 1-9 (2004).

Rieke, G.H., et al, “The Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer (MIPS),” Ap.J. Supp. 154, 25-29 (2004).

Low, Frank J., Paul S. Smith, Michael Werner, Christine Chen, Vanessa Krause, Michael Jura, & Dean C. Hines, “Exploring Terrestrial Planet Formation in the TW Hydrae Association,” Ap.J. 631, 1170-79 (2005).

Gehrz, R.D., et al, “The NASA Spitzer Space Telescope,” Rev. Sci. Instrum. 78, 011302-1–011302-39 (2007).

Shi, Yong, et al, “Aromatic Features in AGNs: Star-forming Infrared Luminosity Function of AGN Host Galaxies,” Ap.J. 669, 841-61 (2007).

Rebull, L.M., et al, “Spitzer MIPS Observations of Stars in the β Pictoris Moving Group,” Ap.J. 681, 1484-1504 (2008).

Shi, Y., et al., “Aromatic Features in AGNs: Star-forming Infrared Luminosity Function of AGN Host Galaxies,” in W.Want, Z. Yang, Z. Luo, & Z. Chen, eds., The Starburst-AGN Connection. Proceedings of the conference held 27-31 October 2008, at Shanghai Normal University, Shanghai, China (ASP Conference Series, Vol. 408), pp. 209-14.