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Jerry Earl Nelson (January 15, 1944 – June 10, 2017) was an American astronomer known for his pioneering work designing segmented mirror telescopes,[1] which led to him receiving the 2010 Kavli Prize for Astrophysics.[2]

Jerry Nelson
Born (1944-01-15)January 15, 1944
Los Angeles County, California
Died June 10, 2017(2017-06-10) (aged 73)
Santa Cruz, California
Nationality American
Alma mater California Institute of Technology, University of California, Berkeley
Known for segmented mirror telescopes
Awards Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics (1995)
Kavli Prize for Astrophysics (2010)
Scientific career
Fields astronomy
Institutions Lick Observatory, University of California, Santa Cruz

He was the principal designer and project scientist for the Keck telescopes.[3]



Nelson was born in Los Angeles County on January 15, 1944.[4][5] As a high school student in 1960, Nelson got an early start in astronomy when he attended the Summer Science Program where he studied under astronomers Paul Routly and George Abell.[6] Growing up in Kagel Canyon outside of Los Angeles, he was the first child from his town to go to college.[7]

He got his B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1965 and his Ph.D. in elementary particle physics from University of California, Berkeley in 1972.[8] While at Caltech, he helped to design and build a 1.5 metres (59 in) telescope.[7]


In 1977, when Nelson worked in the Physics Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he was appointed to a five-person committee to design a 10-meter telescope, twice the diameter of the best telescope of the time. He concluded that only a segmented design would be sensible to overcome structural difficulties. His design had 36 hexagonal mirror segments, each six feet in diameter and just three inches thick. This led to the creation of the revolutionary twin 10-meter Keck telescopes.[7][9][10][11]

"The Hale Telescope was very innovative for its day, but in terms of advancing the state of the art--or at least pushing the available technology to its limits--it's been downhill ever since for optical telescopes. It is time for a forward step, not just making improvements in an old design."

 —Jerry Nelson[10]

Segments solved the structural problem but created a new one involving the alignment of the segments. To deal with this, Nelson contributed to the design of an alignment system that used 168 electronic sensors mounted on the edges of the hexagonal mirror segments and 108 motor-driven adjusting mechanisms to continually keep the mirror system in the correct shape.[10][11]

His proposal was met with skepticism. It was felt that the scheme was too complex to ever work. Eventually, Nelson overcame the doubts by building working prototypes.[5][7]

Nelson became a professor at UC Santa Cruz in 1994. In 1999, he was the founding Director of the Center for Adaptive Optics at UCSC.[8]

In 2010, he shared the million dollar Kavli Prize for Astrophysics for his work on segmented mirrors.[2]

"This is a most well-deserved award. Jerry Nelson first revolutionized astronomy when he invented the segmented mirror design for the Keck Telescopes; he continued with his outstanding work on adaptive optics, and he is about to transform astronomy again through his leading role in the Thirty Meter Telescope project, his work has made possible an era of incredible discoveries in astronomy."

 —UCSC Chancellor George R. Blumenthal[2]

Nelson died in Santa Cruz, California on June 10, 2017.[12][13]



  1. ^ "2010 Astrophysics Citation". The Kavli Foundation. 3 June 2010. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c "Astronomer Jerry Nelson wins prestigious Kavli Prize in Astrophysics". UC Santa Cruz. 18 December 2008. Archived from the original on 20 June 2010. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  3. ^ a b "Optical Society of America Lauds Designer of Keck Telescope". UC Santa Cruz. 2 January 1996. Archived from the original on 28 May 2010. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  4. ^ "Nelson, Jerry Earl", Who's who in the West: A Biographical Dictionary of Noteworthy Men and Women of the Pacific Coast and the Western States, A. N. Marquis Co., 2004
  5. ^ a b Dye, Lee (3 October 1993). "The Mirrors of Mauna Kea : Daringly Different, Keck Observatory's Multifaceted Telescope Will Look Back to the Origins of the Universe — Los Angeles Times". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  6. ^ "The "Teaching Opportunity of a Lifetime" at SSP" (PDF). Summer Science Program. 14 September 2010. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 June 2011. Retrieved 10 November 2010. 
  7. ^ a b c d "Beating the Odds". W. M. Keck Observatory. Archived from the original on 6 October 2010. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  8. ^ a b "Jerry Earl Nelson home page at UCSC". UC Santa Cruz. Archived from the original on 2010-07-03. Retrieved 2010-08-20. 
  9. ^ "Evenings with Astronomers". W. M. Keck Observatory. 19 December 2007. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  10. ^ a b c Yarris, Lynn (1992). "Keck Revolution in Telescope Design Pioneered at Lawrence Berkeley Lab". Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  11. ^ a b "Telescope History: Sky High — Galileo to Gamma Cephei". McDonald Observatory. 1990-04-24. Archived from the original on 30 March 2010. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  12. ^ "Jerry Earl Nelson (1944 - 2017)". American Astronomical Society. Retrieved 2017-06-13. 
  13. ^ "Astronomer Jerry Nelson, pioneering designer of large telescopes, dies at age 73". University of California. Retrieved 2017-06-13. 
  14. ^ "Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics". American Astronomical Society. 1995. Archived from the original on 24 January 2010. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  15. ^ "Caltech Distinguished Alumni Award". California Institute of Technology. 1995. Archived from the original on 17 July 2011. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  16. ^ "Accolades". UC Santa Cruz. 1 June 1998. Archived from the original on 27 May 2010. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  17. ^ "The Kavli Prize Laureates 2010". Kavli Foundation. 3 June 2010. Archived from the original on 12 May 2011. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  18. ^ "Benjamin Franklin Medal in Electrical Engineering". Franklin Institute. 2012. Archived from the original on 2013-06-16. Retrieved April 6, 2013. 

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