ann24004 — Announcement

John Jefferies, First NOAO Director, 1925–2024

John Jefferies, former Director of NOAO, passed away on 18 January. He was 98.

26 January 2024

We are sorry to pass on the sad news that John Jefferies, former Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO, now NSF’s NOIRLab), passed away on the evening of 18 January. He was 98. Jefferies served as NOAO’s first Director beginning in 1984 when Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) were united into one entity, serving until 1987.

Jefferies’ astronomy roots were in solar physics beginning in his native Australia: specifically in developing the physical understanding of solar flares and radio bursts. After a highly productive research career spent both in Australia and various institutions in the continental US, Jefferies went to the University of Hawai‘i in 1964 to start a solar physics program.

At that time, Jefferies also submitted a proposal to NASA on behalf of the University of Hawai‘i to build and operate a telescope to support planetary research. After winning the competition for the telescope, Jefferies made the even bolder decision to place the new facility on Maunakea rather than Haleakala. Despite the many challenges, Jefferies and his staff demonstrated that Maunakea was a superior site in terms of its superb seeing and transparency in the infrared. Jefferies’ efforts led to the founding of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawai‘i, for whom he served as Director, and the establishment of the Maunakea Observatories with the building of the 88-inch telescope near the summit of Maunakea. Among the facilities built at Maunakea while Jefferies was IfA Director are the Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF), United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT).

In 1983, Jefferies was appointed to undertake the integration of the AURA-managed ground-based observatories. Kitt Peak, Cerro Tololo, and the solar program (which was part of these entities before the formation of the National Solar Observatory) were all fiercely independent, and building a single organization with a common culture was a major challenge. Jefferies was successful in laying the foundations for NOAO, which would function as a larger and more capable organization better able to serve the community. After retiring as Director of NOAO, Jefferies returned to solar physics and published more than 30 theoretical and observational papers describing the solar atmosphere. Jefferies was succeeded as NOAO Director by Sidney Wolff.

There is an interesting and informative record of an 1977 interview/conversation with him about his life and work up to that point, from the AIP.

More information 

NSF’s NOIRLab (National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory), the US center for ground-based optical-infrared astronomy, operates the International Gemini Observatory (a facility of NSF, NRC–Canada, ANID–Chile, MCTIC–Brazil, MINCyT–Argentina, and KASI–Republic of Korea), Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), the Community Science and Data Center (CSDC), and Vera C. Rubin Observatory (operated in cooperation with the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory). It is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with NSF and is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. The astronomical community is honored to have the opportunity to conduct astronomical research on Iolkam Du’ag (Kitt Peak) in Arizona, on Maunakea in Hawai‘i, and on Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachón in Chile. We recognize and acknowledge the very significant cultural role and reverence that these sites have to the Tohono O’odham Nation, to the Native Hawaiian community, and to the local communities in Chile, respectively.



Pat McCarthy
NSF’s NOIRLab Director

Abhijit Saha

Josie Fenske
Jr. Public Information Officer

About the Announcement



John Jefferies, former NOAO Director
John Jefferies, former NOAO Director