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Dr. Joe Spitale

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Senior Scientist

Currently resides in AZ
jnspitale [at]
Areas of Expertise
Targets: Asteroids, Enceladus, Icy satellites, Planetary rings, Small satellites
Disciplines/Techniques: Astrobiology, Astrometry, Celestial Mechanics, Education/Public Outreach (EPO), Ground-based observing, Mapping, Numerical modeling, Photometry, Radiometry, Remote sensing, Shape modeling, Space-based observing, Thermal modeling
Missions: Cassini, Dawn, Galileo, HST, Voyager
Mission Roles: Calibration/Test planning, Data archive, Data validation, Instrument operations, Mission operations, Requirements generation and flow down, Science operations, Spacecraft navigation
Instruments: Cameras, Imaging spectrometers
Facilities: IRTF

Research Interests

Dr. Spitale is currently carrying out research programs in the areas of planetary rings and icy satellites. His work to date on Enceladus has been aimed at characterizing the south-polar eruptions by modeling the spatial distribution of material erupting from Enceladus as a function of time.  His work on Saturn's rings has been focused on studying normal modes on ring edges, which has led to the identification of the signatures of embedded moonlets near the edges of the A and B rings, and two or more moonlets embedded near the inner edgeof the Huygens ringlet. His current focus is on numerical modeling of these systems.

Professional History

As an undergraduate, Dr. Spitale observed the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter, and worked with the Galileo imaging team during a year between undergraduate and graduate studies. He received his PhD in Planetary Science in 2001 from the University of Arizona, studying the Yarkovsky effect on small asteroids. During that time, Dr. Spitale was also engaged in scientific analysis, mission planning, uplink / downlink operations, software development and maintenance for the Cassini mission.

After receiving his PhD, Dr. Spitale continued his work with the Cassini imaging team. During Cassini's cruise to Saturn, he developed MINAS (Modular Image Navigation and Analysis System), which has been used throughout the mission for much of the work performed by the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS). Dr. Spitale is currently under contract with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to continue development on that package under the name OMINAS (Open-source MINAS).

After arrival at Saturn, Dr. Spitale examined Saturn's small satellites, and "ring-moons." He also studied the kinematics and dynamics of ring edges, and he established the source locations for the most prominent jets erupting from Enceladus' south-polar region.

Since joining PSI in 2011, Dr. Spitale has examined more recent images of Enceladus' south-polar terrain, showing that interpreting the eruptions as curtains provides a more realistic picture of the activity than the earlier jets-only picture. Based on that interpretation, he produced maps of the eruptive activity that are immune to potential biases introduced by the earlier interpretation. More recently, he has unraveled the complicated kinematics of the Huygens ringlet, an enigmatic narrow eccentric ringlet in Saturn's Cassini division, further advancing our understanding of ring-moons.

Dr. Spitale has been teaching PTYS 214 (Astrobiology: A Planetary Perspective) at LPL since 2011, and has been assisting in the LPL departmental field trips since graduation from LPL. In more recent years, his role in the planning and execution of the field trips has increased.

Dr. Spitale is involved in service to the planetary science community, organizing the 2014 Tucson DPS meeting, and serving on the DPS and DDA executive committees.

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