Date: Fri Nov 19 2010 - 02:39:58 UTC

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    November 18,  2010
    David Aguilar
    +1  617-495-7462 
    Christine Pulliam
    +1  617-495-7463 
    Dr. Brian Geoffrey Marsden  passed away today at the age of 73
    following a prolonged illness. He was a  Supervisory Astronomer at the
    Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and  Director Emeritus of the
    Minor Planet Center.
    “Brian was one of the  most influential comet investigators of the
    twentieth century,” said Charles  Alcock, Director of the
    Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, “and  definitely one of
    the most colorful!”
    Dr. Marsden specialized in  celestial mechanics and astrometry,
    collecting data on the positions of  asteroids and comets and computing
    their orbits, often from minimal  observational information. Such
    calculations are critical for tracking  potentially Earth-threatening
    objects. The New York Times once described  Marsden as a “Cheery Herald
    of Fear.”
    The comet prediction of which  Marsden was most proud was that of the
    return of Comet Swift-Tuttle, which is  the comet associated with the
    Perseid meteor shower each August. Swift-Tuttle  had been discovered in
    1862, and the conventional wisdom was that it would  return around
    1981. Marsden had a strong suspicion, however, that the 1862  comet was
    identical with one seen in 1737, and this assumption allowed him  to
    predict that Swift-Tuttle would not return until late 1992.  This
    prediction proved to be correct. This comet has the longest  orbital
    period of all the comets whose returns have been  successfully
    In 1998, Marsden developed a certain amount of  notoriety by suggesting
    that an object called 1997 XF11 could collide with  Earth. He said that
    he did this as a last-ditch effort to encourage the  acquisition of
    further observations, including searches for possible data  from
    several years earlier. The recognition of some observations from  1990
    made it quite clear that there could be no collision with 1997  XF11
    during the foreseeable future.
    Dr. Marsden also played a key role  in the “demotion” of Pluto to dwarf
    planet status. He once proposed that  Pluto should be cross-listed as
    both a planet and a “minor planet,” and  assigned the asteroid number
    10000. That proposal was not accepted. However,  in 2006 a vote by
    members of the International Astronomical Union created a  new category
    of “dwarf planets,” which includes Pluto, Ceres, and several  other
    objects. Pluto was designated minor planet 134340. This  decision
    remains controversial.
    Marsden was born on August 5, 1937, in  Cambridge, England. He received
    an undergraduate degree in mathematics from  New College, University of
    Oxford, and a Ph.D. from Yale  University.
    At the invitation of director Fred Whipple, Dr. Marsden  joined the
    staff of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in  Cambridge,
    Mass., in 1965. He became director of the Minor Planet Center in  1978.
    (The MPC is the official organization in charge of  collecting
    observational data for asteroids and comets, calculating their  orbits,
    and publishing this information via Circulars.) Marsden served as  an
    associate director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for  Astrophysics
    from 1987 to 2003 (the longest tenure of any of the Center’s  associate
    Among the various awards he received from the  U.S., the U.K., and a
    handful of other European countries, the ones he  particularly
    appreciated were the 1995 Dirk Brouwer Award (named for his  mentor at
    Yale) from the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) Division  on
    Dynamical Astronomy, and the 1989 Van Biesbroeck Award (named for  an
    old friend and observer of comets and double stars), then presented  by
    the University of Arizona (now by the AAS) for service to  astronomy.
    Dr. Marsden married Nancy Lou Zissell, of Trumbull,  Connecticut, on
    December 26, 1964, and fathered Cynthia Louise  Marsden-Williams (who
    is now married to Gareth Williams, still MPC associate  director), of
    Arlington, Massachusetts, and Jonathan Brian Marsden, of San  Mateo,
    California. He also has three grandchildren in California:  Nikhilas,
    Nathaniel, and Neena. A sister, Sylvia Custerson, continues to  reside
    in Cambridge, England.
    Dr. Marsden’s full  biography: 
    Photos of  Brian Marsden:  
    # # #
    Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center  for
    Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the  Smithsonian
    Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory.  CfA
    scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the  origin,
    evolution and ultimate fate of the  universe.
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