Geology & Geophysics AGU News

McEwen Receives 2015 Whipple Award

Alfred McEwen will receive the 2015 Whipple Award at the 2015 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, to be held 14–18 December in San Francisco, Calif. The award recognizes an individual who has made an outstanding contribution in the field of planetary science.



Alfred S. McEwen
Alfred S. McEwen

The Whipple Award, the highest honor given by the American Geophysical Union Planetary Sciences section, is named for Fred Whipple, a famed space scientist most noted for his work on comets.

This year, we have selected Alfred McEwen, professor at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, as the 2015 Whipple Award winner. Before, during, and after his Ph.D. at Arizona State University, Dr. McEwen worked at the U.S. Geological Survey branch of astrogeology in Flagstaff, moving to the University of Arizona in 1996.

Dr. McEwen is interested in how planets evolve. His mission involvement began in 1989 as a guest investigator with the Voyager imaging team for Neptune encounter. Since then, he has been involved with Galileo, Cassini, Clementine, the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, as well as current proposals for future missions. He is deputy principal investigator (PI) of the new Europa Imaging System.

Perhaps his first revolutionary work was the discovery of especially high temperature volcanism on Io. He has published ~200 papers with a who’s who of planetary scientists as collaborators. He has served as an indispensable reminder that better mission data produce better understanding of planets and provide the surprises that we don’t anticipate.

Alfred is the principal investigator of the incredibly successful High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on MRO. Along with critical data about the planet’s past, HiRISE has provided conclusive evidence that Mars remains a dynamic planet. Dr. McEwen’s most important contribution to our field may be the linear features that darken and lengthen during the warmest periods, only to fade away as surface temperatures drop—these recurring slope lineae are most probably seasonal flows of brine on Mars today.

That inquisitive nature, the openness to new ideas and people, and—most of all—his ability to produce results have marked his career and are worthy of the Whipple Award. Many congratulations to Alfred S. McEwen for outstanding contributions to planetary science.

—Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, Arizona State University, Tempe


I truly appreciate this unanticipated recognition. I’ve had awesome role models in past Whipple recipients Larry Soderblom, who hired me off the street and changed my life, and Gene Shoemaker, whose enthusiasm and generosity are legendary. The success of HiRISE is due to many people, including Alan Delamere (instrument design), Rich Zurek (project scientist), Candice Hansen (deputy PI), and the munificent science and operations teams. Those 200 papers Lindy mentioned are due to my past and present students and postdocs, who have been fruitful collaborators. For the Whipple lecture I hope to leave a few takeaway messages: (1) high-resolution repeat imaging is key to understanding active, “ground-breaking” geologic processes, (2) NASA needs more PI-led missions, and (3) planetary scientists should pay close attention to what’s happening on Earth, which, to exoscientists, has to be one of the most interesting exoplanets in the galaxy.

My personal scientific bucket list includes understanding (1) how the recurring slope lineae (RSL) form on Mars, (2) the very high temperature volcanism on Io, and (3) the active geologic processes on Europa. The RSL have a suite of characteristics consistent with seasonal seeps of water in equatorial and midlatitude regions of Mars, but where does that water come from? If humans are really going to live on Mars at any future time, we must understand the RSL. Galileo spacecraft and Earth-based telescopic observations suggest that very high temperature volcanism occurs on Io, consistent with ultramafic lavas. A dedicated mission to Io could be the best way to understand komatiite volcanism and other processes in the early evolution of terrestrial planets. Finally, there is controversy about whether Europa is currently active, but we have almost no appropriate observations to address this question. The new NASA Europa mission will have the capability to definitively answer this question.

—Alfred S. McEwen, Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson

Citation: AGU (2015), McEwen receives 2015 Whipple Award, Eos, 96, doi:10.1o29/2015EO035933. Published on 24 September 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0