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Faith Vilas to Lead Suborbital Observatory Project at PSI

Faith Vilas to Lead Suborbital Observatory Project at PSI

July 12, 2010 -
The Planetary Science Institute is pleased to announce that Dr. Faith
Vilas is joining the institute to lead the Atsa Suborbital Observatory
Project, pushing the boundaries of human-tended observing into outer
space.

The
Atsa project will use crewed suborbital commercial spacecraft with a
specially designed telescope to provide low-cost space-based
observations above the contaminating atmosphere of the Earth, while
avoiding some operational constraints of satellite telescope systems.

Dr.
Vilas has been developing the Atsa Suborbital Observatory with
collaborator Dr. Luke Sollitt from the Physics Department of The
Citadel. "At the PSI, we have an organizational framework within which
we can bring Atsa fully to life," Vilas said.

Dr.
Vilas has a long and distinguished career as a prominent planetary
astronomer, providing new insights into our understanding of the
composition and history of the asteroid belt, constraining heating in
the early solar system, and expanding evidence for water throughout the
asteroid belt. As a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, she
designed a telescope system for the space shuttle to detect and
characterize orbital debris at low-Earth orbit through geosynchronous
orbit. At NASA Headquarters, Dr. Vilas was the program scientist for the
Discovery Program, NASA's solar system exploration mission workhorse.
She has been a U.S. representative to the Japanese Hayabusa mission
science team, whose spacecraft recently returned to Earth potentially
carrying the first samples collected from an asteroid. Presently, she is
a science team member on NASA’s MESSENGER mission to the planet
Mercury.

For
her accomplishments, Dr. Vilas was honored by the designation of Minor
Planet 3507 Vilas by the International Astronomical Union, and she has
received numerous awards for her work at NASA.

Since
2005, Dr. Vilas has been director of the MMT Observatory, a joint
venture of the University of Arizona and Smithsonian Institution. Dr.
Vilas will be retiring from her position with the MMT Observatory at the
end of December 2010, at which time she will begin her activities at
PSI.

"My
greatest pleasure over the past five years has been the opportunity to
work with the first rate staff of the MMT Observatory. They are highly
skilled and dedicated to supporting the astronomical community," Dr.
Vilas said. "I look forward to continuing to use this wonderful facility
as an observer in the future."

Dr.
Vilas earned a bachelor's degree in astronomy from Wellesley College
(1973), a master's in earth and planetary sciences from the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1975), and her doctorate in
planetary sciences from the University of Arizona (1984). As a graduate
student in 1984, Vilas was part of the team that discovered Neptune's
rings. She also designed the coronograph used to obtain the first image
of a circumstellar disk around another star, Beta Pictoris, with her
graduate thesis advisor Bradford A. Smith.

In
addition to being an accomplished planetary astronomer, Dr. Vilas is
also a life-long pilot and has had a parallel career as a volunteer
licensed paramedic in the state of Texas. While working at NASA’s
Johnson Space Center, she also co-founded an animal rescue shelter in
the southeast Houston area and served on its board of directors.

Dr.
Mark V. Sykes, CEO and director of the Planetary Science Institute,
looks forward to Dr. Vilas and her work on the Atsa Suborbital
Observatory becoming affiliated with PSI. "We are very honored to have
Dr. Vilas on board. She will be expanding our activities in new and
exciting directions with human space flight that will greatly advance
our knowledge of near-Earth asteroids, comets and other parts of the
solar system and universe." he said.

"We
look forward to making future announcements about the Atsa Suborbital
Observatory under the leadership of Dr. Vilas. Design studies are under
way and we will be putting up a website on the project after Dr. Vilas
completes her work at the MMT Observatory," Sykes said.

CONTACT:
Dr. Faith Vilas
Director, MMT Observatory
520-621-1269
fvilas [at] mmto [dot] org

Senior Scientist
520-622-6300
fvilas [at] psi [dot] edu

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