Geology & Geophysics AGU News

Malin Receives 2017 Whipple Award

Michael C. Malin will receive the 2017 Whipple Award at the 2017 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, to be held 11–15 December in New Orleans, La. The award recognizes “an individual who has made an outstanding contribution in the field of planetary science.”



Michael C. Malin, recipient of the 2017 Whipple Award.
Michael C. Malin

Dr. Michael Malin is the 2017 recipient of the Whipple Award, the highest honor given by the Planetary Sciences section of AGU. His paradigm-breaking leadership in planet exploration and instrument development laid the foundation for modern views of the rich geologic history of Mars.

Malin trained as a geomorphologist at the California Institute of Technology during the Mariner 9 mission. His interests span the inner solar system and icy satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, including pioneering studies of the volcanic origin of the intracrater plains on Mercury and mass wasting on Venus. Malin’s primary focus has been on Mars, and he argued that Viking Orbiter images at quarter-kilometer scale significantly limited image-based geological studies of Mars. He campaigned strongly and persistently for better instrumentation.

In 1986, Malin’s proposed Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) for the Mars Observer mission was selected by NASA. After that mission failed, the MOC flew on the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft and provided about 2 orders of magnitude better resolution than the Viking Orbiter cameras. This innovative imaging system, collecting image data one line at a time as spacecraft motion swept out the field of view, transformed our understanding of the Martian surface.

Between Mars Observer selection and MGS’s successful arrival at Mars in 1997, Malin received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and left academia. The fellowship provided him resources to establish Malin Space Science Systems (MSSS), a company that since Viking, has contributed imaging systems to most major missions to Mars and changed the paradigm for low-cost, high-performance space mission cameras.

Malin’s foresight and conviction paved the way for many discoveries. He is most appreciated for his unprecedented study of the sedimentary record on Mars. Previously, Mars had been considered a principally volcanic planet, with water-ice caps and cratered highlands. With MOC images, Malin mapped diverse sedimentary environments on Mars and identified previously unrecognized geologic processes, including relief inversion, lacustrine environments, and subaqueous processes. His careful observations have been a catalyst for modern views of the dynamic surface environment on Mars.

The planetary science community honors Dr. Malin for his research accomplishments, engineering talent, and spirit of exploration.

—Sarah T. Stewart, University of California, Davis


I am deeply honored, and very surprised, to be named the Whipple awardee and lecturer. As a person who sees the proverbial glass half empty, and who is often harshly critical of the work of colleagues and myself, it took extraordinary commitment for someone to nominate me and for others to write letters of support of sufficient quality to result in this award. I thank them all for putting in the time and effort.

In my first draft of this response, I assembled a timeline of the people who were instrumental to my career. That effort exceeded the response word limit by greater than 2 times. Herein follows a ranking by degree of impact on me of these people. I apologize to those who didn’t make this arbitrary cut.

I am most indebted to Bruce Murray (my advisor), Bob Sharp, and Gene Shoemaker of Caltech, who set examples beyond my ability to emulate and provided encouragement and intellectual challenges that shaped my approach to science. The collaborations with Murray (as his student), and Sharp thereafter (as a colleague), stimulated some of my most productive and imaginative efforts.

My greatest fortune was meeting and being befriended by G. Edward Danielson, an innovative engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with superb people skills, an ability I did not possess and couldn’t easily attain. Our collaboration ultimately led to the successful Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC) effort, for which Ed, then at Caltech, assembled and managed a team of bright, young, gifted, and iconoclastic engineers including Tom Soulanille, Mike Ravine, and Scott Brylow, and I recruited to ASU Diana Michna and Mike Caplinger, who became the core of Malin Space Science Systems. Without these associates, my signature scientific achievements would never have been made.

My most productive and rewarding collaboration has been with Ken Edgett, who shared essentially all of the major discoveries and advances made using MOC.

My career also benefited from dealing with imaginative and courageous administrators who saw within my many flawed proposals the kernels of potential, despite wildly disparate reviews. Burt Edelson, Steve Dwornik, Bill Quaide at NASA HQ, Mort Turner at the National Science Foundation, Glenn Cunningham and Tom Thorpe at JPL, and Arden Albee at Caltech were the “customers” that enabled my work.

—Michael C. Malin, Malin Space Science Systems, Inc., San Diego, Calif.

Citation: AGU (2017), Malin receives 2017 Whipple Award, Eos, 98, Published on 03 November 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0