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'They threw away the mold' when they made UA astronomer
TOM GEHRELS, 1925-2011

'They threw away the mold' when they made UA astronomer

Planetary scientist was known as an asteroid expert

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Gehrels was born in the Netherlands and became a member of the Resistance in World War II. Later, in England, he worked to sabotage and spy on the Nazis. He was one of the first faculty members to work at the UA's Lunar and Planetary Lab.

Tom Gehrels, a pioneering astronomer and planetary scientist who was one of the first faculty members to work at the UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, died Monday. He was 86.

The award-winning professor worked at the University of Arizona for 50 years and led numerous research efforts that gave new insight into asteroids and comets that pose collision threats with Earth, the polarization of starlight, and images of Jupiter and Saturn.

Gehrels, who was born in the Netherlands, joined the Dutch Resistance after the Nazis invaded the country in 1939.

He fled to England and was later a part of Britain's Special Operations Executive, which sabotaged and spied on the Germans.

"He was one of a kind. They threw away the mold when they made him," said Michael Drake, director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

Gehrels followed astronomer Gerard Kuiper to the UA in 1961 after the men met and worked at the University of Chicago, where Gehrels received his doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics.

In the 1960s he conducted the first surveys of asteroids and eventually earned a reputation as an expert in that field, Drake said.

He also built an instrument that was launched to Jupiter and Saturn to take some of the first up-close pictures of the planets.

By the '80s, Gehrels shifted more of his focus to asteroids.

Gehrels started the Spacewatch Project in 1980, which uses scopes on Kitt Peak to monitor the sky for asteroids, especially potentially dangerous ones. He was currently researching universal evolution.

Gehrels was an active man who still rode his bike to work up until a few weeks ago, Drake said.

"His passing was rather sudden and a bit of a surprise to all of us," he said.

Gehrels is survived by his wife and three children, he said.

Contact reporter Jamar Younger at or 573-4115.

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