Celebrating Past and Future Decades of Astrophysical Discovery

by Adam Hadhazy

Rob Simcoe reflects on the institute’s successes and the exciting new research to come

The Author

Mens et manus—the motto for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that means “mind and hand” in Latin—is exemplified by the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI).

Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the institute has built up an impressive track record of translating theory-driven science into practical experiments. Over a short two-decade span, major projects successfully executed by MKI members have included space telescopes and ground-based instruments that have greatly advanced astrophysics and related areas of scientific understanding.

Kavli Institute Director Rob Simcoe and Kavli Foundation Program Officer Greg Mack speak on stage during the 20th anniversary celebration.

“Bringing together the more abstract science notions with the physical building of experiments to pursue that science is baked in at MIT, and we’re excited to have carried on that tradition at MKI,” says Robert Simcoe, the Director of MKI since 2019 and the Francis L. Friedman Professor of Physics at MIT.

Simcoe originally arrived at MIT as a postdoctoral researcher in Astrophysics in 2003 and has accordingly been with MKI since its inception a year later. Over the years, Simcoe has seen the institute develop and mature to the point where it could spearhead whole missions, such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Telescope (TESS), a groundbreaking exoplanet hunter that launched in 2018.

In this way, the founding of MKI galvanized space-related science at MIT, helping unite astrophysicists that had historically been scattered across campus.

“The gift from The Kavli Foundation really brought all of us together into one place and allowed us to work together so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” says Simcoe. “Having us all co-located where the engineering, science, and technical resources combine together to gel allowed us to undertake something as big and ambitious as TESS.”

The celebration of 20 years of MKI commemorated the many milestones of the institute, while also looking ahead to an exciting future. The celebration looked back as well to MKI’s predecessor organization, the Center for Space Research, founded in 1963 through one of the first research grants from NASA.

“It’s a double anniversary for us—20 since MKI and 60 since the CSR,” says Simcoe. “So we had a bash.”

Attendees enjoy a reception at the 20th anniversary celebration, including Risa Wechsler, far left, Rob Simcoe, center left, and Greg Mack, center right.

The anniversary events include a gala where speakers will reflect on the history and highlights of MKI and CSR. Among these highlights are the Kavli Prize in Physics and the Nobel Prize in Physics for MKI member Rainer Weiss, one of the leaders of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) project that detected gravitational waves for the first time in 2015. Two other significant experimental milestones dating back to the CSR days were the instrumentation aboard Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Magellan spacecraft to Venus that launched in 1999 and 1989, respectively.

The pioneering scientific spirit that led to these past successes remains alive and well at MKI, and empowering researchers to undertake bold experiments has been a chief goal of Simcoe’s directorship. “What interested me in the role was the ability to think big and scale up the size of the projects and the scientific visions that we could support,” says Simcoe.

Innovatively, MKI has long fostered a scientific entrepreneurial approach where researchers come up with ideas and then raise internal interest and support for their initiatives. “Every one of our faculty members runs a small research group,” says Simcoe. “You can think of each research group as being like a little startup company.”

Through their projects, MKI researchers and teams of hardworking postdocs and students seek to produce novel types of hardware, for instance, or new ways of analyzing existing or expected data. This strategy can lead to breakthroughs—though not every attempt achieves its goals. Adept management of such volatility, Simcoe says, is a key part of MKI’s success. “We create an environment where people can still be entrepreneurial and take risks, but also feel like they are safe and will be supported,” says Simcoe.

The entrepreneurial approach has positioned MKI, its members, and the broader community for continuing scientific achievement. Some of the big initiatives in the years ahead include participation in the next generation of large ground-based telescopes. These telescopes, with primary mirrors in the 20- and 30-meter range, represent a new level of observational capability and will come online in the 2030s. Via optical light that is useful for a wide range of astrophysical investigations, the telescopes will have multiple times the resolving power of JWST, NASA’s latest flagship space telescope launched in 2021.

MKI is also actively involved in planning for a next-generation gravitational wave observatory, called the Cosmic Explorer. The gargantuan observatory will feature 40-kilomeer-long arms—some ten times longer than LIGO’s. The resulting surge in detection sensitivity will let the Cosmic Explorer sense gravitational waves from the first black hole mergers in the universe, dramatically beyond LIGO’s range of about 1.5 billion light years.

“We're making important progress towards these goals,” says Simcoe. “It's been exciting taking the things that we've done well historically and starting to understand what are the big ways that we can grow them into the next version of themselves.”

For Simcoe, his fascination with the cosmos began in childhood. Growing up in Westborough in central Massachusetts with its decently dark skies, he recalls staring up at night in his backyard. Simcoe and his father subsequently took on the project of building their own telescope, and even started traveling to conventions of amateur telescope makers in Vermont. “I kind of got bit by the bug,” says Simcoe, laughing.

In keeping with MIT’s motto, Simcoe found that he enjoyed not only what the telescopes revealed to him, but also the effort involved in building and honing instrumental apparatuses. He went on to major in astronomy in college and grad school, where he worked on astronomical cameras for telescopes, and eventually on to MIT, with his studies focusing on star formation and galaxy evolution.

“I figured I would keep doing it until it wasn't fun anymore,” says Simcoe. “And here I am, 25 years later, still fun.”

To share this joy, Simcoe’s research group has started an outreach project with public high schools to help students learn how to build their own telescopes. With support from the National Science Foundation, the group has obtained telescope mirrors for students to incorporate into instruments using shop tools and 3D printing technology.

“I feel very lucky to have ended up in the situation where the hobby becomes the career,” says Simcoe. “And to share with other people the things I enjoyed doing when I was a kid, it’s full circle.”

Written by Adam Hadhazy