Donald Parker was one for the cosmos.
As a noted astrophotographer — one who photographs the planets — Parker’s planetary observance and imaging techniques came to the attention of professional researchers at NASA, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other scientific institutions who would often cite his work for discoveries of features on Mars and Jupiter.
Parker, who died Sunday at age 76, was still writing and giving lectures at science gatherings right until the end. Four days before he died of complications from lung cancer, he delivered his final talk at the annual Winter Star Party in the lower Keys before a group of scientists, astronomers and other space experts.
“He gave a retrospective on his entire life and the breadth of everything he did,” said his friend and colleague Dr. Manny Padrón, a Miami urologist. “This man had unspeakable wit and intelligence. He gave a long, detailed speech, no notes, took in-depth questions, and plenty of jokes were sprinkled in to lighten the mood.”
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In 1994, the International Astronomical Union named asteroid 5392 “Parker” in honor of his contributions to solar system science. That year, the amateur astronomer who lived in Coral Gables, along with two colleagues in Perrine, observed a fractured comet crashing onto Jupiter. The blast was so impressive that it was visible from 477 million miles away.
But Parker saw more near Jupiter’s south pole, something like a “burn scar, really grotesque, strange,” he said in a July 1994 Miami Herald article. “It’s something that’s never, ever been seen before and probably won’t be seen again in our lifetimes. This is just absolutely incredible.”
And, to the astronomy community, so was Parker.
He wrote numerous papers for scientific journals, magazines and news sites, including a recent piece published in Nature just weeks ago and one still to come for the science journal about the surface of Mars that will use his imaging data. His images over the years top 20,000.
Parker “was a pioneer of planetary astrophotography and an inspiration to generations of imagers around the world,” wrote Sean Walker in an appreciation piece this week in Sky & Telescope.
In 1988, Parker co-authored the book Introduction to Observing and Photographing the Solar System (Willman-Bell; $15) with research chemist Thomas Dobbins, who said of Parker: “He could be completely serious without taking himself too seriously.”
Parker is a past director of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. In 1995, his planetary images earned the Amateur Achievement Award of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and, in 2004, the Gold Medal of the Oriental Astronomical Association for his work studying Mars.
Born Jan. 28, 1939, in Highland Park, Illinois, Parker developed a love for astronomy as a child, thanks to parents who championed his interest. His father helped him build his first telescope, Padrón said.
Parker was an anesthesiologist who trained at Jackson Memorial Hospital a year after moving to Miami in 1965. He spent the rest of his career at Mercy Hospital in Coconut Grove.
“I got to know him astronomically when my wife, Chrissy, gave me a telescope,” Padrón said. “This was a man who was extremely generous with his knowledge and time and bringing anyone along in this hobby gently, but he was a walking encyclopedia.”
His children recall a father who loved sailboat racing and whose “excitement and intellectual curiosity about all subjects inspired each of us to follow our passion.” His “love for scuba diving also helped motivate his interest in respiratory physiology, dolphin physiology research and, ultimately, anesthesiology,” his daughter Kathleen Greenwood wrote in an email to the Herald.
But he never stopped looking up. In 1985, The Miami News reported that he got the first known photographic image of Halley’s Comet in South Florida.
“He taught me to look at the sky,” Padrón said. “One of his mottoes was, ‘Come on over any time. We never close. But we don’t do mornings.’”
Parker is survived by his children Kathleen Greenwood, Michael Parker and Suzanne Landsom, and grandchildren Megan, Kimberly, Dylan, Justin, Caitlyn and Kylie.
Services will be 4 p.m. Sunday at Stanfill Funeral Home, 10454 S. Dixie Hwy. in Pinecrest, with a memorial at 11 a.m. Monday at Epiphany Catholic Church, 8235 SW 57th Ave. near Miami. Donations in Parker’s name can be made to the Association of Lunar & Planetary Observers at www.alpo-astronomy.org.
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