Arizona professors earn highest NASA medal for non-governmental scientists

By Greg Hahne
Published: Monday, May 29, 2023 - 6:13pm

Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope
NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez
Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Two University of Arizona professors were awarded NASA’s top medals designated for non-governmental scientists earlier this month.

Their foundational work on the James Webb Space Telescope granted them honors given to the likes of the late astronomer Carl Sagan and the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Marcia Rieke has worked on the telescope for about 20 years as the principal investigator for its Near Infrared Camera.

That tool helps produce images that can see the earliest stars and galaxies 

Marcia was recognized for her leadership and dedication in pushing the project forward from its onset.

“I think that this medal to me recognizes that my style of persuading my team to do the yucky stuff to get us to this wonderful Webb data was a good one to follow," Marcia Rieke said.

George Rieke, Marcia’s husband, was awarded a medal for his work as principal investigator for the Mid-Infrared Instrument, which reveals newly formed stars, comets and interstellar dust.

“When it finally worked, and we started to get the data, it’s just the excitement in the new things that are coming down. And in fact frequently my office gets invaded by two or three young people who have just found something brand new and that’s just fantastic," he said.

George Rieke says the project required international collaboration to develop from multiple science and engineering fields.

"All the people who contributed without making any serious mistakes in the end, and the whole thing actually works when it was so complicated and challenging that a lot of people thought that  it just wouldn’t happen," George Rieke said. 

Marcia Rieke says that her team is working on developing its more complicated projects, and will release a new paper soon. 

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