James Ludlow Elliot, a professor of planetary astronomy and physics at MIT who discovered the rings of Uranus in 1977, died on March 3 from cancer-related complications. He was 67.
Elliot was known as one of the great observational planetary astronomers of the modern era. Among his accomplishments were leading the team that discovered the ring system of Uranus, and discovery of the atmosphere of Pluto. He was committed to excellence in teaching and mentoring, and was a staunch advocate for women in science.
Elliot was born on June 17, 1943, in Columbus, Ohio. He received an undergraduate degree in physics from MIT in 1965 and a PhD in astronomy from Harvard University in 1972. While a graduate student at Harvard, Elliot was an avid observer on the 60-inch telescope at the Agassiz Station in Harvard, Mass. He held a postdoctoral position at Cornell University, and joined the faculty of Cornell’s Astronomy Department in 1977. He returned to MIT in 1978, after he discovered Uranus's rings alongside Edward Dunham and Douglas Mink. He was also the director of MIT’s Wallace Astrophysical Observatory.
Elliot was one of the pioneers in the technique of stellar occultations: watching a star as a planetary object moves in front of it, and studying the planetary object from the effect on the star’s light. Elliot used occultations to probe planetary atmospheres as well as the physical properties of small bodies in the outer solar system.