Aaronson was born in Los Angeles and educated at the California Institute of Technology, where he received a BSc in 1972. He completed his Ph.D. in 1977 at Harvard University with a dissertation on the near-infrared aperture photometry of galaxies. He joined Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in 1977 and became an Associate Professor of Astronomy in 1983. Aaronson and Jeremy Mould won the George Van Biesbroeck Prize in 1981 and the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize in Astronomy in 1984 from the American Astronomical Society. The Marc Aaronson Memorial Lectureship, promoting and recognizing excellence in astronomical research, is held every 18 months by the University of Arizona and Steward Observatory as a tribute to his memory.
His work concentrated on three fields: the determination of the Hubble constant (H0) using the Tully-Fisher relation, the study of carbon rich stars, and the velocity distribution of those stars in dwarf spheroidal galaxies.
Aaronson was killed during a tragic accident in the evening hours of 30 April 1987, in the dome of the 4-m Mayall Telescope of the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Aaronson was killed when he was crushed by the hatch leading out to the catwalk when the hatch was slammed shut on him by a ladder which extended down from the turning telescope dome. A switch on the hatch automatically shut down the dome rotation motor; however, the momentum of the dome kept it moving for a few moments, allowing it to hit the outward opening hatch. Observers were not supposed to open the hatch while the dome was rotating because of that possibility, a design flaw which was corrected after the accident by trimming the ladder and redesigning the hatch to slide sideways, parallel to the dome wall. He has been nominated a Darwin Award for the circumstances surrounding his death.
Asteroid 3277 Aaronson is named in his honor.
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