Swift spacecraft
NASA's Swift spacecraft, launched in 2004 on a two-year mission but still operational today, has been renamed after its late principal investigator, Neil Gehrels. Credit: NASA

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — NASA announced Jan. 10 that it was renaming the Swift astronomy spacecraft after its former principal investigator, who passed away last year.

During a presentation at a NASA town hall meeting at the 231st Meeting of the American Astronomical Society here, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said that Swift would now be known as the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.

Gehrels, who died in February 2017, had been principal investigator for Swift, a mission launched in 2004. The spacecraft was designed to be able to rapidly respond to transient events, such as gamma-ray bursts, observing them at wavelengths ranging from gamma rays to visible light.

“Neil wore many hats in service to the astrophysics community,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, at a later press conference at the meeting. In addition to being the principal investigator for Swift, had served as project scientist on the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory and Fermi missions. At the time of his death last year he was project scientist for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, NASA’s next flagship astronomy mission after the James Webb Space Telescope.

“He brought a thoughtful approach to every single problem he was ever asked the opinion of,” said Zurbuchen, who prior to joining NASA knew Gehrels from service on National Academies committees.

Swift was originally designed as a two-year mission to study gamma-ray bursts, an energetic astrophysical phenomenon that had puzzled scientists for decades. “The mission was phenomenally successful,” Hertz said. The spacecraft studied two classes of bursts, linking one to the formation of black holes when massive stars collapse and the other to merging neutron stars.

During its extended mission, Swift has become a multipurpose observatory, studying “transient and variable cosmic phenomena of all kinds,” Hertz said. His comments at the press conference came after the announcement of the latest research using the spacecraft, measurements of the sudden slowdown in the rotation rate of a comet nucleus made by an ultraviolet instrument on Swift last year.

In NASA’s latest senior review of astrophysics missions in 2016, Swift received high marks. “Its multi-wavelength suite of instruments combined with its rapid response capability is unique among NASA missions,” stated the senior review report, which recommended the mission continue. “Swift gives impressive testimony for how much a mission can evolve during its life span.”

“Swift is still going strong, and we continue to receive four urgent ‘target-of-opportunity’ observing requests from the broader astronomical community each day,” said S. Bradley Cenko, who was recently appointed as the mission’s principal investigator, in a statement. “Neil’s leadership and vision continue to guide the project, and we can think of no better way to honor this legacy than with the new name.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...