The scientists and engineers searching for potentially habitable planets orbiting distant stars, as well as the exploration of all the planets in our Solar System, headlined the 2015 Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum trophy awards for Lifetime and Current Achievement.
The awards were presented Mar. 25 at a glittering black tie ceremony and dinner at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C.
The Current Achievement trophy was presented to the team overseeing the NASA Kepler space telescope mission, named after noted 17th century astronomer Johannes Kepler. The spacecraft was launched on a Delta-II rocket from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in 2009 to determine the fraction of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy that harbor Earth-sized planets that are potentially habitable.
The Lifetime Achievement trophy was presented to Dr. Stamatios “Tom” M. Krimigis of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore Md. Krimigis has led the development of instruments launched to every planet in the Solar System, including Pluto.
“The winners of the 2015 Trophy Awards have significantly advanced space exploration and discovery in major ways,” said Marine Gen. J.R. “Jack” Dailey, the museum’s director. “Few individuals have contributed more significantly to our knowledge of the solar system in a single career than Dr. Krimigis, and the Kepler Mission Team’s accomplishments have altered our views of possible life on other planets in our Universe.”
In a personal and much appreciated gesture, Gen. Daily noted in his presentation that this reporter has been a member of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum trophy selection board for 30 years, a milestone he cited as my picture was displayed on the giant IMAX screen before about 250 invited guests.
Established in 1985, the award recognizes outstanding achievements in the fields of aerospace science and technology and their history. As in past years, Trophy winners receive a miniature version of “The Web of Space,” a sculpture by artist John Safer.
In addition to this reporter, the selection board includes retired astronaut Dr. Kathryn D. Sullivan, now NOAA Administrator; Dr. John C. Mather, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics and Senior Project Scientist for the Webb Space Telescope set for launch in 2018; Dr. Eugene E Covert, professor emeritus of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT; and world aerobatic champion Patty Wagstaff.
“Since its launch in March 2009, the Kepler mission has detected more than 4,000 candidate planets in orbit around other stars, or exoplanets for short. More than 1,000 of those exoplanet candidates have since been confirmed. These discoveries have revolutionized humanity’s view of Earth’s place in the universe by unveiling a whole new side of our Milky Way galaxy — one that is teeming with planets,” said the award citation.
William Borucki, principal investigator for the Kepler mission, accepted the trophy from Gen. Daily with about 20 Kepler team members looking on in front of the Wright Flyer.
“As a result of Kepler’s discoveries, scientists are confident that most stars have planets and that Earth’s galaxy may host tens of billions of Earth-sized planets that reside in a distant star’s “habitable zone,” the region around a star where liquid water might exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. The Kepler mission is also establishing a foundation for future studies of exoplanet atmospheres that could eventually answer the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe,” said the citation.
The Kepler space telescope infers the existence of an exoplanet, by measuring the amount of starlight blocked when it passes or transits in front of its parent star. From these data, a planet’s size in radius, orbital period in Earth years, and the amount of heat energy received from the host star can be determined.
During its prime mission, Kepler simultaneously and continuously measured the brightness of more than 150,000 stars for four years, looking for the telltale dimming that would indicate the presence of an orbiting planet.
In May 2014, Kepler began a new mission, K2, to observe a series of fields along the ecliptic plane, the orbital path of the Earth about the Sun, where the familiar constellations of the zodiac lie. This new mission provides scientists with an opportunity to search for even more exoplanets, as well as new opportunities to observe notable star clusters, young and old stars, active galaxies, and supernovae. The spacecraft continues to collect data in its new mission.
NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., manages the Kepler and K2 missions for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. operates the flight system with support from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
“Krimigis, the lifetime winner is recognized as an innovative leader in space-program development, has made fundamental contributions to space science and exploration,” said his citation.
“Tom is one of our most storied and experienced scientists,” said Ralph Semmel, director of APL, “and we are tremendously proud of this recognition of a life propelled forward by scientific curiosity. His professional career coincided with the dawn of space exploration, and he and his colleagues took full advantage of that amazing opportunity. His visionary work developing new and innovative ways for NASA to explore the solar system provided the Laboratory with the opportunity to contribute engineering and science expertise to humanity’s quest to understand our universe.”
“He has led or participated in space physics experiments deployed to all eight major planets, the only scientist in the world to do so. He has also made valuable discoveries in the physics of the solar wind and the magnetosphere of the solar system,” said the Museum citation.
It says “he also played a crucial role in transforming planetary exploration as one of the initiators of NASA’s Discovery planetary missions program” producing a series of flights limited to $500 million each.
He led the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory Space Department in the development of the NEAR asteroid, Shoemaker lunar, MESSENGER Mercury, and New Horizons Pluto missions. Currently, he is also involved in missions to Mercury, Saturn, Pluto, and the heliosphere, and participating in path-breaking contributions to understanding the transition zone to interstellar space. In Greece, his native country, he is playing a critical role in encouraging the development of space science, said the museum citation.