Geology & Geophysics AGU News

Spencer Receives 2016 Whipple Award

John Spencer will receive the 2016 Whipple Award at the 2016 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, to be held 12–16 December in San Francisco, Calif. The award recognizes an individual who has made an outstanding contribution in the field of planetary science.



John Spencer
John Spencer

Dr. John Spencer is the 2016 recipient of the Whipple Award, the highest honor given by the American Geophysical Union Planetary Sciences section. Dr. Spencer’s contributions to the exploration and understanding of satellites in the solar system have had a profound influence on the field of planetary science.

Dr. Spencer is a gifted astronomer, who specializes in multispectral observations from ground-based telescopes to spacecraft. He has probed atmospheric compositions, measured tidal heat output, and chased the seasonal dance of surface frosts across the outer solar system. Dr. Spencer’s research into the thermal and physical properties of planetary surfaces has shed light on the most remote terrains.

Dr. Spencer’s research on Io has been vital to our understanding of Jupiter’s intensely volcanic moon. Most notably, his discovery of S2 gas in the large plume, Pele, has been key in constraining Io’s interior chemistry. By exploring Io from multiple flyby spacecraft and from Hubble to monitor major volcanic eruptions and to map global thermal emission, his research has been crucial in constraining Io’s energy budget.

Using Cassini data, Dr. Spencer was first to recognize that excess thermal energy is radiating from the “tiger stripes” region near Enceladus’s south pole from which its plumes erupt. His estimation of the total flux has led to insights into the internal structure, energetics driving the plume, character of the internal ocean, and Enceladus’s tidal evolution.

Dr. Spencer’s leadership on Galileo, Cassini, and now New Horizons has trained a new generation of scientists in rigorous analysis techniques and innovative observing strategies. Dr. Spencer’s enthusiastic support of the planetary community includes chairing the Satellites panel for the last Decadal Survey and laying the groundwork for the Europa mission.

The planetary science community honors Dr. Spencer for his research accomplishments, community spirit, and intense curiosity. We look forward to your discoveries on Europa and the Kuiper Belt!

—Sarah T. Stewart, University of California, Davis


I’m delighted (and amazed) to receive this honor, all the more so given the list of past recipients, which includes so many of my heroes. Like previous winner Steve Squyres, I wanted to be Larry Soderblom when I grew up—maybe this is a common condition among planetary scientists. Many others have made my career possible through their mentoring and inspiration. Pete Schultz in particular stands out for taking the chance of inviting a Lancashire lad to join the summer intern program at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in 1978, and showing me how much fun the process of discovery could be. Alan Stern also deserves special mention—my attempts to keep up with him have led me on an exhilarating and truly spectacular ride to Pluto and beyond. I will also always be grateful to Lowell Observatory and Southwest Research Institute for providing such congenial environments for my explorations.

The exploration of the solar system is one of humanity’s greatest adventures, revealing the beauty and wonder and interconnectedness of so many worlds, and showing what is special and precious about our own planet. It has been a great privilege to have been part of this enterprise during a time that will arguably be seen as its golden age.

—John Spencer, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo.

Citation: AGU (2016), Spencer receives 2016 Whipple Award, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO061305. Published on 24 October 2016.
© 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0