Emily LakdawallaOct 06, 2009

Prizes for Steve Squyres, Toby Owen, Kelly Beatty, and Sarah Stewart-Mukhopadhyay

One of the highlights of the annual meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society is the awarding of several prizes. The Gerard P. Kuiper Prize for outstanding contributions to the field of planetary science is a late career prize, awarded to people whose achievements throughout a lifetime of research have advanced our understanding of the solar system. This year the Kuiper prize was awarded to Toby Owen. The University of Hawaii press release described his contribution: "Owen's scientific achievements include the discovery of the rings of Jupiter and noble (inert) gases and heavy water on Mars, deducing the early existence of a new class of solar-system building blocks called 'solar composition icy planetesimals,' and establishing the importance of deuterium (heavy hydrogen) and other isotopes for studying the history and formation mechanisms of our solar system." However, he's most loved in the community for being the "father of Cassini" -- he was the lead on the American half of the Cassini-Huygens development team, and helped rescue it from near-cancellation. Via Twitter I hear he received a standing ovation at today's prize presentation. Congratulations Toby!

There's a new prize this year, the Jonathan Eberhart Planetary Sciences Journalism Award, intended to "recognize and stimulate distinguished popular writing on planetary sciences," which was given to Kelly Beatty for his May 2008 article "Reunion with Mercury," for Sky and Telescope. But I am sure that in awarding the prize to Kelly, the committee was really recognizing a career of outstanding planetary science journalism. Kelly's writing is not only detailed and well-researched, it's engaging and conveys an infectious fascination for the planets. Congratulations Kelly!

This year's Harold C. Urey Prize for outstanding achievement in planetary research by a young scientist was awarded to Sarah Stewart-Mukhopadhyay. I had not heard of her, but that's one reason for the existence of this prize. The other prizes are awarded to people that everyone's heard of, who loom over the field; the Urey prize counterbalances that by recognizing promise in a young researcher (which is defined as being under the age of 37 or fewer than 6 years post-doctorate). Stewart-Mukhopadhyay does very cool-sounding experimental research on the effects of impacts into ice. The press release states "Sarah's findings show that ice, even when initially at very low temperatures, melts easily during an impact event by very quickly changing into different dense crystal structures. She demonstrated that shock-induced melting occurs at much lower pressures than previous theoretical estimates, thereby providing strong evidence for subsurface ice playing the dominant role in forming layered ejecta morphologies on Mars. Similarly, her collaborative work on vapor and fluidized flow implicates liquid water as the most prevalent erosive fluid currently active on Mars."

But the prize that I'm most excited about is the Carl Sagan Medal for excellence in public communication in planetary science. This year, it was awarded to the very deserving Steve Squyres, principal investigator on the Mars Exploration Rover science team. I'm especially excited about the prize because I was asked to write one of the three letters in support of Steve's nomination. The nominator told me he'd gotten two "mucketymuck scientists" to write the other two letters, but that he thought it'd be meaningful for one of the letters to come from somebody who represented the people who Steve communicates to. As you can imagine, I was delighted and honored by the request. Below is what I wrote. Steve: Congratulations, and more than that, thank you!!

I am writing to recommend Dr. Steven W. Squyres for the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science. Throughout my eight years at The Planetary Society I have worked with Steve to educate, excite, and inform the public about the Mars Exploration Rover missions both from the inside, on the Marsdial and Red Rover Goes to Mars public outreach projects, and from the outside, as a member of the media reporting on the progress of the missions to a hungry public.

Steve is an exciting public speaker and popular science writer whose tales of the rovers' arrivals and exploration of Mars electrify his audience, and for that he is deserving of recognition. But through his leadership, Steve has contributed to the public experience of space exploration in ways that go far beyond his individual efforts. Before the Mars Exploration Rovers landed, even the most open of missions kept the public at arm's reach, communicating through press releases and, at best, daily captioned image releases. Steve, together with rover camera team leader Jim Bell, decided to do better: they made plans to share every single rover image with the public, driving the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to develop an automated process, an offshoot of the mission's internal image processing pipeline, to post every rover image straight to the Internet nearly as soon as it was received on Earth.

The automatic release of all rover images has revolutionized the public experience of exploring Mars. No longer held at arm's length, the public has been able to ride along with the science team as they explore into uncharted territory, tussle with driving challenges, and discover strangely colored soils in the rovers' wheel tracks. By generously sharing his data with the world as soon as he receives it, Squyres is allowing rover fans to become citizen scientists, investigating Mars at the science team's elbows. (Actually, Steve would object to the pronoun I used in the previous sentence; he insists it's not "his" data, that it has always belonged to the American taxpaying public, and it's only fair to hand it directly over to them.)

The immediate release of image data proved to be a popular outreach tool, and did not produce a wave of scientific publications from researchers not connected with the rover missions (as some scientists feared it would). So, based on the precedent set by Steve, JPL chose to do the same kind of rapid release of all images from the Cassini-Huygens mission. Since then, the Phoenix lander mission and the New Horizons mission have followed suit, and even ESA is beginning to get into the act with rapid release of images from an engineering camera aboard Mars Express.

Thanks to Steve's leadership, the public now expects -- and, often, receives -- much more open, more immediate communication from all space missions. His risk has paid off; I would argue that Spirit and Opportunity are the most beloved robots in space since the Voyagers. Steve deserves the Carl Sagan Medal for his success in fostering that sense of connection between us on Earth and those intrepid explorers on Mars, and for inspiring other missions to follow in his trail.

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