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Dr. Mark Sykes

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PSI CEO & Director

Currently resides in AZ
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Areas of Expertise
Targets: Asteroids, Ceres, Charon, Comets, Deimos, Dwarf planets, Interplanetary Dust, Mars, Mercury, Moon, Phobos, Pluto, Small satellites, Vesta
Disciplines/Techniques: Ground-based observing, Photometry, Radiometry, Remote sensing, Space-based observing
Missions: Dawn, HST, IRAS, ISO (ESA), MSX, NEOWISE, Spitzer
Mission Roles: Data archive, Mission Co-Investigator, Mission science team, Science operations
Facilities: ALMA, IRTF, Kitt Peak, MMT, SMT

Research Interests

Mark Sykes' research focus is interplanetary dust, asteroids, comets and other small bodies in the solar system. He discovered comet dust trails, from which he determined that comets were primarily rocky bodies rather than the canonical "dirty snowballs" of the time. He discovered numerous asteroid dust bands after the first bands were detected by the Infrared Astronomical Satellite and determined that their origins were recent collisions of small asteroids. He continues to study dust trails and other extended solar system structures in data from the Wide-field Infrared Explorer. Sykes and colleagues have found dozens of additional trails, confirming their commonality as a fundamental characteristic of short-period comets. 

Sykes was a Co-Investigator on the NASA Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres. He designed the satellite search strategy used at Vesta and Ceres, and studied the impact-driven geomorphology of both objects, their exogenic surface contamination, and the relationship between the formation of the Rheasilvia and Veneneia basins and the extensive Vesta asteroid family. He participated in work demonstrating that Ceres may have subsurface reservoirs of brine, giving rise to recent cryovolcanism and the emergence of bright deposits of evaporites. Combined with the observations of an active Pluto surface by New Horizons, this underscores the likelihood that many dwarf planets might be geologically active.

Sykes has a long-term interest in advanced propulsion technology. In the 1990s, working with NASA Glenn engineers, he designed numerous planetary missions proposed to the Discovery program using solar electric propulsion including multiple asteroid rendezvous and a comet rendezvous mission, culminating in Dawn. He also designed and was PI of a Pluto orbiter mission proposal which was to be powered by a uranium reactor. He was PI of the proposed Eve mission to 10 Hygeia (a Dawn follow-on). He is continuing to examine nuclear electric propulsion missions to orbit dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt and a plasma propulsion mission to flyby the interstellar object 'Oumuamua. He currently serves on an advisory board for a solar sail technology demonstration mission.

Sykes has also been involved in insitu space resource utilization and its potential for advancing human space activities since the 1980s. He proposed a self-sustainable space transportation system in the 1990s based on NEO ISRU and nuclear thermal propulsion. He led the PSI portion of a PSI-Raytheon Missile Systems team, proposing an architecture for the Vision for Exploration, which was based on ISRU from NEOs, the Moon, Martian moons, and the surface of Mars. He was on the Board of Advisors for Planetary Resources, Incorporated, and was invited to testify before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on proposed legislation regarding NEO ISRU and its commercial future.

Professional History

Sykes began his professional life at the University of Oregon's Pine Mountain Observatory making photometric and polarometric observations of eclipsing binaries, in particular the first black hole system Cygnux X-1. He then went to the Oregon Graduate Center to study Applied Physics. There, he worked on laser physics and developed analog convolution methods in applied optics for the Department of Defense. He later received his PhD in Planetary Science at the University of Arizona where he was given the Gerard P. Kuiper Memorial Award for his research on comets and the interplanetary dust complex.

In 1987, Sykes joined the research faculty of Steward Observatory where he worked on various planetary projects for the next seventeen years. During this time he served on the Astronomy and Astrophysics Working Group of the Space Exploration Initiative to develop a plan for the evolution of astronomy from the surface of the Moon as human activity expanded, he chaired a NASA panel to write the first planetary spacecraft data rights policy for the agency, and he served in various leadership roles for the Division for Planetary Science of the American Astronomical Society. For the DPS, he was elected to the Nominating Committee, DPS Committee, and Chair. He later created and led their Federal Relations Subcommittee and served on the AAS Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy.

In 1997, Sykes received his JD from the University of Arizona College of Law and continues to be a member of the Arizona Bar.

In 2004, Dr. Sykes became CEO and Director of the non-profit Planetary Science Institute. During this time he has chaired the NASA Planetary Data System Working Group and the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group and was a member of the NASA Planetary Science Subcommittee. He also served on the NRC panel on The Role and Scope of Mission-Enabling Activities in NASA's Space and Earth Science Missions. Sykes has served on and chaired numerous NASA proposal review and mission senior review panels. He is the founding editor of the Planetary Exploration Newsletter.

Honors and Awards

2019, Legacy Fellow, American Astronomical Society
2016, Harold Masursky Award for Meritorious Service to Planetary Science, Division for Planetary Sciences, American Astronomical Society
2013, NASA Group Achievement Award, Dawn Science Operations Team
2013, NASA Group Achievement Award, Dawn Science Team
2007, NASA Planetary Science Division, Distinguished Service Award
2005, Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science
1991, Minor Planet 4438 Sykes
1986, University of Arizona Gerard P. Kuiper Memorial Award

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