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Leaders in Innovation

How George Carruthers Changed the Way We See Earth

On July 20, Space Exploration Day is celebrated on the anniversary of the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, in which Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin became the first humans to land on the moon.

As we observe this inspiring day, we hope you’ll join everyone here at the National Inventors Hall of Fame® in looking up to the stars while thanking the visionaries who have grown our understanding of space and dreaming of what the future might hold.

One of the space technology innovators we all can thank today is National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductee George Carruthers. In April 1972, astronauts completing the Apollo 16 mission placed one of Carruthers’ inventions, the far ultraviolet electrographic camera, on the moon. The first moon-based observatory, it still stands today. Read on to learn more about Carruthers’ impact.


Exploring Possibilities

Carruthers was born on Oct. 1, 1939, in Cincinnati. In his early years, his family moved to a small farm near Milford, Ohio. Always curious about the possibilities of space travel, when he wasn’t completing his chores on the farm, he often spent his time reading, building and exploring STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts. According to the National Air and Space Museum, “by the time he was 10 years old, he built his first telescope from lenses he saw for sale in an astronomy magazine.”

As Carruthers grew, so did his interest in space. He graduated from the University of Illinois with his doctorate in aeronautical and astronautical engineering in 1964. He then began his career at the Naval Research Laboratory, where he would remain until retiring as a senior astrophysicist in the Space Sciences Division in 2002.

While Carruthers made many discoveries and advancements throughout his career, he is perhaps best known for his invention of the far ultraviolet electrographic camera, or spectrograph. Compact yet extremely powerful, this gold-plated camera uses ultraviolet light to enable scientists to study Earth's upper atmosphere, as well as stars and gases in interstellar space.


Sharing a New Perspective

Carruthers’ camera was first used in sounding rocket flights to study stars in 1966. In 1970, it was used to make the first discovery of molecular hydrogen in space. But the camera made its most famous impact in 1972, as Apollo 16 astronauts established the first moon-based observatory in the Descartes highland region. Here, Carruthers’ invention provided an unprecedented perspective, allowing us to see our planet in a new way.

Discussing his invention’s impact, Carruthers said, "The most immediately obvious and spectacular results were really for the Earth observations, because this was the first time that the Earth had been photographed from a distance in ultraviolet (UV) light, so that you could see the full extent of the hydrogen atmosphere, the polar auroris and what we call the tropical airglow belt."

In addition to the spectrograph, Carruthers also designed and developed instruments used in many more space flight missions, including Skylab, four space shuttle flights and the Department of Defense's Advanced Research and Global Observation Satellite (ARGOS) unmanned satellite mission.

In the 1980s, he helped develop the Science and Engineers Apprentice Program, providing opportunities for high school students to contribute to research at the Naval Research Laboratory. In 2012, Carruthers earned the country’s honor for technological achievements, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.


Shaping the Future

In honor of Carruthers, who passed away on Dec. 26, 2020, NASA has renamed a telescope that will observe Earth from space. Formerly known as the Global Lyman-alpha Imager of the Dynamic Exosphere (GLIDE) mission, the Carruthers Geocorona Observatory is expected to launch in 2025.

This observatory will capture light from the geocorona, a belt of ionized hydrogen surrounding the outermost part of Earth’s atmosphere, the exosphere, which emits ultraviolet light. This will be the first mission focused on studying the geocorona’s characteristics and tracking any changes.

Expanding our understanding of the geocorona is important because, as NASA explains, “The exosphere plays an important role in Earth’s response to space weather, the changing conditions in space driven by the Sun. That weather can impact our technology, from satellites in orbit to communications signals in the upper atmosphere or power lines on the ground.”

The Carruthers Geocorona Observatory represents just one of the ways in which this visionary’s work will continue to make an impact for generations.


Get to Know More Extraordinary Inventors

Since 1973, the National Inventors Hall of Fame has honored more than 600 of the world’s greatest creators and innovators. To learn more of their stories, we invite you to visit our website.

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