NASA’s Astronomy Science Centers: Implementing Portals to the Universe

Workshop Report

I. Neill Reid,, Lisa Storrie-Lombardi (Spitzer Science Center,, Belinda Wilkes (Chandra X-ray Center,


NASA’s Astronomy Science Centers were established to provide an interface between the space observatories and the broader astronomical community using those missions for research. Their origins can be traced to the 1976 report of the “Hornig committee,” which was charged by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences to consider the appropriate institutional framework for supporting a general-purpose optical space observatory, which became the Hubble Space Telescope. The report developed the case for a stand-alone, university-based institute to provide long-term guidance, support for the scientific effort, mechanisms for engaging astronomers worldwide, and ways and means of disseminating and utilizing the data generated by the observatory.

Based on those recommendations, NASA issued a call for proposals for the new institute, and in 1981 selected the Johns Hopkins University, partnering with the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), Inc., to host the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) on the university’s Homewood campus in Baltimore.

Four years later, in 1985, NASA established the Infrared Processing Astronomy Center (IPAC), under the auspices of Caltech/JPL, to conduct the extended mission of the Infrared Astronomical Satellite. IPAC subsequently acted as the focal point for space-based infrared astronomy. It developed the Infrared Science Archive Center to support the U.S. community’s involvement in the Infrared Space Observatory of the European Space Agency (ESA). In 1997, IPAC took on responsibility for the Spitzer Science Center. IPAC has since become the astronomy center for other infrared missions, including the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, Herschel, and Planck.

In 1991, NASA established what would become the Chandra X-ray Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, building on the infrastructure developed to support the community’s use of Einstein data and U.S. community’s use of data from ROentgen SATellite (ROSATWebb telescope. NASA has established further centers to support other missions, including Kepler (at IPAC) and Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) at NASA-Ames, Swift and Fermi at GSFC, and the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at IPAC.