History of the MPE - Overview

History of the Institute

The Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik (MPE) was preceded by the department for extraterrestrial Physics in the Max-Planck-Institut für Physik und Astrophysik. This department was established by Professor Reimar Lüst on October 23, 1961. A Max-Planck Senate resolution transformed this department into a sub-institute of the Max-Planck-Institut für Physik und Astrophysik on May 15, 1963. Professor Lüst was appointed Director of the Institute. Another Senate resolution on March 8, 1991 finally established MPE as an autonomous institute within the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. It is dedicated to the experimental and theoretical exploration of the space outside of earth as well as astrophysical phenomena. A continuous reorientation to new, promising fields of research and the appointment of new members ensures steady advancement.

Among the 29 employees of the Institute when it was founded in 1963 were 9 scientists and 1 Ph.D. student. Twelve years later in 1975 the number of employees had grown to 180 with 55 scientists and 13 Ph.D. students, and today there are are some 400 staff (130 scientists and 75 PhD students). It is noteworthy, that permanent positions at the institute have not increased since 1973 - despite its celebrated scientific achievements. The increasingly increasingly complex tasks and international obligations have been mainly maintained by staff members with positions having limited duration and funded by external organizations.

Because the Institute has assumed a leading position internationally, it has attracted guest scientists throughout the world. The number of long-term guests increased from 12 in 1974 to a maximum of 72 in 2000. In recent years MPE has hosted an average of about 50 guest scientists each year. 

During the early years the scientific work at the Institute concentrated on the investigation of extraterrestrial plasmas and the magnetosphere of the earth. This work was performed with measurements of particles and electromagnetic fields as well as a specially developed ion-cloud technique using sounding rockets.

Another field of research also became important: astrophysical observations of electomagnetic radiation which could not be observed from the surface of the earth because the wave lengths are such that the radiation is absorbed by the earth's atmosphere. These observations and inferences therefrom are the subject matter of infra-red astronomy as well as X-ray- and gamma-ray-astronomy. In addition to more than 100 rockets, an increasing number of high-altitude balloons (up to now more than 50; e.g.  HEXE) have been used to carry experiments to high altitudes.

Since the 1990s, satellites have become the preferred observation platforms because of their favorable observation-time/cost ratio. Nevertheless, high-flying observation airplanes and ground-based telescopes are also used to obtain data especially for optical and near-infrared observations.

New observation techniques using satellites has necessitated the recording, processing and accessible storage of high data fluxes over long periods of time. This demanding task is performed by a data processing group, which has grown quickly in the last decade. Special data centers were established for the large satellite projects.

Beside the many successes, there have also been disappointments. The malfunctioning of the Ariane carrier rockets on test launches in 1980 and 1996 were particularly bitter setbacks. The satellite  "Firewheel", in which many members of the Institute had invested years of work, was lost on May 23, 1980 because of a burning instability in the first stage of the launch rocket. The same fate was to overtake the four satellites of the CLUSTER-Mission on June 4, 1996 when the first Ariane 5 was launched. This time the desaster was attributed to an error in the rocket's software. The most recent loss was "ABRIXAS", an X-ray satellite built by industry under the leadership of MPE. After few hours in orbit, a malfunction of the power system caused the total loss of the satellite.

Over the years, however, the history of MPE is primarily a story of many brilliant scientific successes.

A short selection is listed below:

  • Exploration of the Ionosphere and Magnetosphere by means of ion clouds (1963 - 1985)
  • The first map of the galactic gamma-ray emission ( > 70 MeV) as measured with the satellite COS-B (1978)
  • Measurement of the magnetic field of the neutron star Her-X1 using the cyclotron line emission (balloon experiments 1978)
  • Experimental proof of the reconnection process (1979)
  • The artificial comet (AMPTE 1984/85)
  • Numerical simulation of a collision-free shock wave (1990)
  • The first map of the X-ray sky as measured with the imaging X-ray telescope on board the ROSAT satellite (1993)
  • First gamma-ray sky map in the energy range 3 to 10 MeV as measured with the imaging Compton telescope COMPTEL on board CGRO (1994)
  • The plasma-crystal experiment and its successors on the International Space Station (1996-2013)
  • The measurememt of the element- and isotope-composition of the solar wind by the CELIAS experiment on board the SOHO satellite (1996)
  • The first detection of water-molecule lines in an expanding shell of a star using the Fabry-Perot spectrometer on board the ISO satellite (1996)
  • First detection of X-ray emission from comets and planets (1996, 2001)
  • Determining the energy source for ultraluminous infrared galaxies with the satellite ISO (1998)
  • Detection of gamma-ray line emission (44Ti) from supernova remnants (1998)
  • Deep observations of the extragalactic X-ray sky with ROSAT, XMM-Newton and Chandra and resolving the background radiation into individual sources (since 1998)
  • Confirmation that a supermassive black hole resides at the centre of our galaxy (2002)
  • Detection of a binary active galactic nucleus in X-rays (2003)
  • Reconstruction of the evolution history of stars in elliptical galaxies (2005)
  • Stellar disks rotating around the black hole in the Andromeda galaxy (2005)
  • Determining the gas content of normal galaxies in the early universe (since 2010)
  • Resolving the cosmic infrared background into individual galaxies with Herschel (2011)


Expansion Building
In the autumn of 2000 our new building was finished and occupied after a construction time of slightly over two years. Besides the office and laboratory space we now also have a large seminar room with a capacity of approximately 200 persons, and several small meeting rooms. It is also the first time in 15 years that all research groups of the institute are located in one common building.

photos of the expansion building

aerial pictures


last update 2015-07-22 by H. Hämmerle