Gart Westerhout, an internationally known radio astronomer who established the astronomy department at the University of Maryland, College Park and was scientific director at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville.
He was 85.
The son of an architect and a writer, he was born and raised in The Hague, Netherlands, where he also graduated from high school.
Dr. Westerhout earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics, physics and astronomy in 1950 from the University of Leiden, and earned his master's degree in the discipline in 1954.
He earned his Ph.D. in 1958 in astronomy and physics, also from the University of Leiden. From 1952 to 1956, Dr. Westerhout was an assistant at the Leiden University Observatory, and from 1956 to 1959 was its scientific officer.
Dr. Westerhout said in an autobiographical sketch that while at Leiden, he developed the first detailed map of the "Spiral Structure of our Milky Way galaxy in 1955, followed by the discovery of numerous new sources of radio waves in our Milky Way," some of which now bear his name.
He conducted his research at Dwingeloo radio observatory in the Netherlands, which resulted in the "Westerhout Radio Catalog" identifying the largest star formation regions in the Milky Way galaxy.
The catalog carried Westerhout numbers, for instance W51, which is "a giant molecular cloud and massive star formation," according to Galaxy Map, in an article explaining the astronomer's work. The catalog, which eventually identified 79 objects, is still in use today by radio astronomers.
Dr. Westerhout explained the importance of his search for neutral hydrogen clouds by describing them as "building blocks of the stars," in a 1966 Evening Sun article. "In time they become the basic mortar for stars such as our sun."
As a radio astronomer, a field that came into prominence during the 1930s, Dr. Westerhout studied the universe by focusing on the radio waves that emanated from celestial objects and also the distribution of hydrogen throughout the galaxy.
From 1959 to 1962, when he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland as professor of astronomy, he had been chief scientific officer at the Leiden observatory.
At the time of Dr. Westerhout's appointment at College Park, John S. Toll, head of the department of physics and later university president, told The Baltimore Sun that Dr. Westerhout was "the most outstanding radio astronomer in Europe and among the best in the world."
It was Dr. Westerhout's mission when he arrived at College Park to establish the astronomy program. He did so in 1962 with 12 graduate students. During his 15-year tenure at Maryland, the department grew into one of the nation's most prominent astronomy programs.
At its unveiling in 1964, the University Observatory at College Park became the first major optical laboratory in Maryland, containing 24-inch and 8-inch telescopes, with room for a future 36-inch telescope.
"The Netherlands exports three things — cheese, flowers and astronomers," Dr. Westerhout told The Evening Sun.
Dr. Westerhout also conducted a major survey of the sky through the use of the 300-foot radio telescope at Green Bank, W.Va.
In 1972, Dr. Westerhout organized the University of Maryland's division of mathematical, physical and engineering sciences and was named its head the next year.
Dr. Westerhout left College Park in 1977, when he was named scientific director at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Northwest Washington.
During his 16-year tenure, he was responsible for a major expansion of the organization and construction of a network of five radio telescopes from Florida to Hawaii that measured the rotation of the Earth.
Gart Westerhout, astronomer
Internationally known radio astronomer had been scientific director at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington and established astronomy department at College Park
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