NASA renames Swift telescope to honor Neil Gehrels

NASA has renamed the Swift space telescope, designed to quickly detect and observe fast transient events in space like gamma ray bursts, to honor the late Neil Gehrels, the man who led the project from day one.

During a presentation at a NASA town hall meeting at the 231st Meeting of the American Astronomical Society here, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said that Swift would now be known as the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory.

Gehrels, who died in February 2017, had been principal investigator for Swift, a mission launched in 2004. The spacecraft was designed to be able to rapidly respond to transient events, such as gamma-ray bursts, observing them at wavelengths ranging from gamma rays to visible light.

“Neil wore many hats in service to the astrophysics community,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, at a later press conference at the meeting. In addition to being the principal investigator for Swift, had served as project scientist on the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory and Fermi missions. At the time of his death last year he was project scientist for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, NASA’s next flagship astronomy mission after the James Webb Space Telescope.

Knowing astronomers, they will now refer to this observatory as the NGSO. Not I. It will be “Gehrels Swift” to me, whenever I need to mention it. Gehrels was one of the most friendly, open, and easy-to-work-with astronomers I ever had to deal with. He is sorely missed.