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Astronomy Professor Richard Elston Helped Find Young Stars

By Paul Logan
Journal Staff Writer
    Richard Elston received a telescope on his eighth Christmas in 1968.
    Inspired by NASA's Apollo space program and the $49.95 Kmart scope, the Albuquerque boy began his celestial career.
    Elston, a University of Florida astronomy professor, collaborated in 2003 in the discovery of seven young stars, about 1,000 light years away, where planets are forming.
    The breakthrough could lead astronomers to expand the areas in which they search for new planets, according to the university's Web site.
    Elston, 43, died Jan. 26 in Gainesville, Fla., of Hodgkin's lymphoma, said his father, Wolf Elston, a semi-retired University of New Mexico geology professor.
    "He was very easy-going, very cheerful," his father said. "He was sick for four years, but you'd never know it just meeting him casually. He was very much on the upbeat."
    He said his son probably was proud of designing and supervising the building of FLAMINGOS— Florida Multi-object Imaging Near-IR Grism Observational Spectrometer.
    Elston oversaw the $4 million project funded by the National Science Foundation.
    He and his wife, Elizabeth Lada, also a Florida astronomy professor, made the discovery using the instrument— which when packed is about the size of a freezer— at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.
    FLAMINGOS uses infrared imaging to observe tens of thousands of stars each night— many more than could be examined without the instrument. Their observation could lead astronomers to expand the areas in which they search for new planets, the Web site said.
    The New York Times of May 27, 2003, explained the significance of the discovery: "Planets may form around distant stars more rapidly than previously thought, and some of these planetary systems could be far more extensive than the Sun's."
    Richard Joseph Elston was born July 1, 1960, in Albuquerque. His father said he had at least four advantages in life:
  • An older brother, Steve, who was generous and protective;
  • A sense of wonder and curiosity which he retained as an adult;
  • An intellect that allowed Elston to put his gifts to practical use; and
  • "Last, and most important of all, he had the extraordinary good fortune to find a perfect match in Elizabeth."
        As a seventh grader in the early 1970s, Elston was assembling circuit boards. The only item on his Christmas list was a floppy disk, but his parents didn't know what it was at the time, his father said.
        After graduating from Albuquerque High School, Elston went to UNM on an academic scholarship, majoring in physics and astronomy.
        UNM professor Marcus Price, past chairman of the physics and astronomy department, said most of the faculty would remember Elston as "one of the best (students) we had over the last 25 years."
        Price said Elston's instrument will be used by other astronomers in years to come. "In a sense it is part of his legacy, and it will allow— as we say in the sciences— others to stand on his shoulders and see further," Price said.
        He later received fellowships from NASA and the NSF to attend the University of Arizona, earning a doctorate.
        He was an astronomer at an observatory in Chile about five years. Elston and Elizabeth were married in 1996.
        They joined the University of Florida faculty in 1997.
        He was recognized in 1999 with the NSF Career Grant for his contributions as a designer of optical instruments and as an observer of the formation and evolution of galaxies.
        He received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2000— only 10 scientists from all disciplines are honored annually, his father said.
        Elston's mother, Lorraine, a journalist, died in 2000. Other survivors include a son, Joseph, 4.
        Elston succeeded in life despite dyslexia, a learning disability that affects a person's ability to read. His father said his son's example may "encourage others who suffer from the affliction."
        A memorial service will be held Friday in Gainesville.
        Donations may be made to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, P.O. Box 27106, New York, N.Y. 10087. Please specify in memory of Richard Elston and in support of the work of Dr. Owen O'Connor.