Faith Vilas

Dr. Faith Vilas is the 2019 recipient of the Whipple Award, the highest honor given by the Planetary Sciences section of AGU. During her more than 40 year career, Dr. Vilas has pioneered remote sensing of the solar system, pushing its capabilities through instrument design and expert observations of a variety of targets. Dr. Vilas studies the surface composition of airless bodies including asteroids, moons, and the planet Mercury. She has made ground-based visible wavelength spectroscopy her focus and has excelled in pulling out small but telling spectral features in the reflectance spectra of these airless bodies.

Examples of her groundbreaking work include her analysis of subtle absorption features in reflectance spectra of low-albedo (presumed primitive) asteroids. In particular, this includes a feature centered near 0.7 micron, which is caused by the action of aqueous alteration—evidence of water’s action throughout history in the asteroid belt. She showed that Galileo broadband data of the Moon exhibited the 0.7-micron feature, indicative of an aqueous alteration product near high southern latitude craters—an initial detection of lunar hydration, well before later reports based on infrared spectral features.

Vilas’s dedication to planetary science is also reflected in her contributions to the field in the form of service to the community. Examples include serving as the NASA Discovery Program Scientist; program director for planetary astronomy at the National Science Foundation; chief scientist of the NASA Planetary Data System; the inaugural NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) chair; chair of the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences; and vice chair and chair of the Detection and Characterization Sub-committee on the 2009 National Academies’ study on near-Earth object detection, characterization, mitigation, Defending Planet Earth.

The impact of Dr. Vilas’s work in these areas cannot be overstated.

—Amanda Hendrix, Planetary Science Institute, Colorado


I am honored and humbled to receive the Fred Whipple Award from the AGU Planetary Sciences section. Thank you all very much!

No work is possible without the support and collaboration of colleagues, sponsors, and friends. I will certainly fail to mention all of the culprits, but I start with thanking my undergraduate advisor, Sally Hill, for encouraging me to pursue my scientific passion in planets—the combination of passion and persistence underlies many advancements in science. I thank both of my graduate advisors, Tom McCord (a former Whipple awardee) and Brad Smith, for providing me with great opportunities to pursue planetary sciences and instrumentation. My research has benefited from collaborations with Mike Gaffey, Bill Hubbard, Anita Cochran, Steve Larson, Mark Sykes, Amanda Hendrix, and Deborah Domingue. Many undergraduate interns, graduate students, and postdocs have forced me to expand my thinking with their own creative input while conducting research, notably Kandy Jarvis, Liz Jensen, and Sue Lederer.

I chose the nascent field of planetary sciences as a college undergraduate and have had the privilege to watch it grow and expand over a lifetime’s career. Telescopic observations of points of light to glean the surface composition and structural and orbital properties of solar system bodies are now succeeded by detailed imaging, returned samples, and surface rovers throughout the solar system. Each object brings new surprises. Quoting a colleague, “There is more diversity in the solar system than there is in the brains of bright theorists!” Our expansion with space probes is enabled by Earth-based remote sensing, and these two approaches will remain intertwined as we continue our journey of planetary systems exploration.

—Faith Vilas, Planetary Science Institute, Arizona


(2020), Vilas receives 2019 Fred Whipple Award, Eos, 101, Published on 15 September 2020.

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