Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
Phoenix Mission principal investigator will be the first holder of a $2.5M endowed chair.
University of Arizona senior research scientist Peter Smith, principal investigator of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Mission, has been named the first Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Chair in Integrative Science.
“This prestigious honor could not be bestowed to a more deserving person than Peter Smith,” said Robert N. Shelton, president of the UA. “Peter’s contributions to the University and our understanding of the universe have been monumental.”
Smith is fully responsible for all aspects of the $420 million Phoenix Mars Mission. Smith and his team will control the lander from the UA’s Science Operations Center after its May 25 touchdown on the Red Planet. The spacecraft will land in the northern polar region of Mars to conduct science experiments as part of NASA's search for elements of life in our solar system.
The Thomas R. Brown Family Foundation donated $2.5 million to establish an endowment for the Thomas R. Brown Distinguished Chair in Integrative Science. The chair will rotate within the UA College of Science every five years to reward top faculty for transformational achievements in their respective fields.
“My father, Tom Brown, dedicated his career to advancing new technologies that improved the quality of our lives,” said Sarah Smallhouse, president of the Brown Family Foundation. “Exploring our solar system not only helps us understand changes occurring on our planet, but also inspires humankind to push the boundaries of imagination and innovation to new heights. Both endeavors were important to my father.”
A member of UA's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory since 1978, Smith has participated in many of the seminal space missions that have explored the solar system. In 1997, NASA’s Pathfinder Mission relayed images of the Red Planet captured by Smith’s camera on board the Sojourner Rover.
“A world audience was captivated by the stunning digital photography Peter controlled 400 million miles away from a computer on Earth. This is just one example of the profound impact he has had on the study of science,” said Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science.
Smith spent nearly two years managing the building of the 2005 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera for which the UA’s Alfred McEwen is the principal investigator.
Smith also has experienced his share of disappointment, which is inherent in leading complicated space missions. In 1999, the Mars Polar Lander mission crashed on the Martian surface. That failure prompted the cancellation of the 2001 Mars Surveyor Program mission. Both projects included UA cameras.
“Peter never lets setbacks deter him from believing in himself and the importance of exploring Mars. His tenacity and character are important reasons that the success of the UA’s 50-year-old space program continues on,” said Michael Drake, Regents’ Professor and director of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.
The Phoenix name recalls the mythological bird that rises from the ashes of his predecessor. The Phoenix Mission uses the 2001 lander with instruments delivered for both that mission and the failed Polar Lander mission.
Smith graduated in 1969 from the University of California, Berkeley, in physics and later continued his education at the UA’s Optical Sciences Center (now the College of Optical Sciences), graduating with a master's degree in 1977.
The Phoenix Mars Mission is led by Smith with project management at JPL. The development partnership is with Lockheed Martin, Denver. International contributions are from the Canadian Space Agency; the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland; the universities of Copenhagen and Aarhus, Denmark; the Max Planck Institute, Germany; and the Finnish Meteorological Institute.