“Amazing scientist, engineer, professor, and mentor, he will be remembered.” The National Society of Black Physicists (NSP) said this when it announced the death of one of its members, Dr. George R. Carruthers, on December 26 at a Washington hospital. “Carruthers is regarded the inventor of the UV camera/spectrograph,” said a long-time supporter of the group. He was also the inventor of the camera that captured the first photos of space. The NSP statement stated, “His work has been essential in the fields of astrophysics.”
Carruthers, who earned America’s highest medal for technological achievement in 2012, is one of the country’s greatest innovators. His numerous creations revealed a great deal more about space and the atmosphere of the Earth. Carruthers was a pioneer in the use of UV astronomy to discover more about the universe from the 1960s when he joined the Naval Research Laboratory until his death.
He is well known for designing the Apollo 16 far ultraviolet camera and spectrograph, which is still in use today. The gold-plated camera system, which was originally placed on the moon’s surface in 1972, allowed researchers to analyze the Earth’s atmosphere for pollution for the first time.
According to the US Naval Research Laboratory, researchers were also able to obtain readings of and analyze objects and elements in space that could not be seen with the human eye thanks to his camera. The 50-pound camera setup also provided astronomers with images of stars and solar systems millions of kilometers distant. The camera is still on the moon’s surface.
“What we proposed was to put a camera on the moon’s surface to watch the Earth and analyze its hydrogen atmosphere, which stretches for thousands of miles,” Carruthers added. “Even the space station and the shuttle can’t go close enough to investigate the upper atmosphere.”
Carruthers acquired a patent for his pioneering instrumentation, “Image Converter for Detecting Electromagnetic Radiation Especially in Short Wave Lengths,” which was used to identify molecular hydrogen in space, before he developed his camera system. According to a study by Astronomers of the African Diaspora, the physicist and space scientist went on to help introduce other electronic telescopes that were utilized on board NASA satellites to translate light into electrical signals, which are then relayed to Earth and telecast.
Carruthers is also acclaimed for his other cameras, which have been used to study the ozone layer and transmit photographs of faraway stars and planets for computer analysis onboard space shuttles, the reports claim.
Carruthers’ achievement in space, on the other hand, should not come as a surprise. Carruthers, who was born on October 1, 1939, in Cincinnati, Ohio, grew up during the space race and had a fascination with physics. As a civil engineer, his father encouraged him to pursue his dream. By the age of ten, Carruthers had built his own telescope out of cardboard tubing and mail-ordered lenses.
As a result, by the time he enrolled at the University of Illinois in 1957, he knew a lot about astronomy. He got a B.S. in physics in 1961 and an M.S. in 1962 from the University of Illinois. Carruther graduated with a Ph.D. in aeronautical and astronautical engineering in 1964.
He joined the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C. as a Research Physicist the same year, after receiving a National Science Foundation scholarship in rocket astronomy.
He rose through the ranks to become the Principal Investigator for a research project before establishing himself as an ultraviolet radiation expert. Carruthers then became the head of NRL’s Ultraviolet Measurements Branch, where he made his first major contribution when he led the team that invented the far ultraviolet camera/spectrograph that was used on the Apollo 16 mission to the moon in 1972.
“…You could say that the Apollo era was the pinnacle of not only my activities, but also of space science in general, because it was a fast-paced program with no funding constraints, whereas nowadays in the shuttle program, there is no urgency to fly anything, and funding is much harder to come by, at least in relative terms, adjusted for inflation,” Carruthers said in an interview.
On the 1974 Skylab space trip, a second version of the space scientist’s camera was sent to investigate comets and later to see Halley’s Comet, among other things. Carruthers would continue his research at the NRL, working on a space telescope as well as other electronic cameras and devices. Carruthers was an enthusiastic participant in the promotion of science and technology among young people, particularly Black Americans, before his death.