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PSI’s Faith Vilas Honored With AGU Fred Whipple Award

Dec. 5, 2019

faith vilas

Faith Vilas


Faith Vilas has been named the 2019 recipient of the Fred Whipple Award, the highest honor given by the Planetary Sciences section of the American Geophysical Union. 

Vilas, Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, has during her more than 40-year career pioneered remote sensing of the Solar System, pushing its capabilities through instrument design and expert telescopic observations of a variety of Solar System targets. Vilas studies the surface composition of airless bodies including asteroids, the Moon, planetary satellites, 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 spectra of these airless bodies. 

Her groundbreaking work includes her discovery and analysis of subtle absorption features in reflectance spectra of darker – presumed primitive – asteroids. In particular, this includes a spectral feature centered near 0.7 µm, which is caused by light reflected from minerals created by water altering the structure and composition of underlying rocks – evidence of water’s action throughout history in the asteroid belt. 

“I am honored to receive the Fred Whipple Award from the AGU Planetary Sciences section, and I thank them for this recognition of my research and service,” Vilas said. “No work is possible without the support and collaboration of colleagues, sponsors, and friends, and this prize is shared with the many people I have worked with over the years.” 

Vilas’ dedication to planetary science is also reflected in her contributions and her service to the planetary science community through multiple professional positions. She has worked at NASA, the National Science Foundation, and several ground-based observatories, including the MMT Observatory in Arizona, which she led from 2005 to 2010. Last month she was named Editor of the Planetary Science Journal, a new peer-reviewed open-access publication from the American Astronomical Society and its Division for Planetary Sciences.

“I chose the emerging field of planetary sciences as a college undergraduate, and have had the privilege of watching it grow and expand throughout my career,” Vilas said. “Each object we explore brings new surprises. Our expansion now with space probes throughout the Solar System is enabled by telescopic observing, and these two approaches will remain intertwined as we continue our journey of planetary systems exploration.” 

Established in 1989, the Whipple Award is given annually to one honoree in recognition of outstanding contributions in the field of planetary science. This award is named in honor of AGU Fellow Fred Whipple, a gifted astronomer most noted for his work on comets.

Vilas will receive the Whipple Award and will present an invited lecture during the AGU Fall Meeting on Dec. 9 in San Francisco. 


Alan Fischer

Public Information Officer


fischer [at]




Faith Vilas

Senior Scientist

fvilas [at]


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