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Veverka wins astronomy’s prestigious Kuiper Prize

Joe Veverka

Joseph Veverka, Cornell professor emeritus of astronomy, who studied the many crannies, crevices, clefts and comets within our solar system, has become the second faculty member to win one of astronomy’s most distinguished awards – the Gerard P. Kuiper Prize. The award was announced July 12.

The late space sciences professor Carl Sagan won the award posthumously in 1998.

Given by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the Kuiper Prize was awarded to Veverka for his “outstanding contributions to the field of planetary science during a career that now spans five decades.” The society explained that his contributions represent “a monumental increase in our understanding of planets and, in particular, small bodies – the moons, asteroids and cometary nuclei in our planetary system.” As a planetary scientist, Veverka has defined the field of quantitative study of small bodies in the solar system for a generation – a generation populated by his students and many associates, the group said.

Veverka earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont., in 1964 and his doctorate from Harvard in 1970, where he was a protégé of the noted astronomer Fred Whipple. Veverka joined the Cornell faculty in 1970, serving as astronomy chair 1999-2007. Veverka worked as a scientist on many NASA planet missions, including Mariner 9, Viking, Voyager Mars Observer and Mars Global Surveyor, Galileo, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission and as the principal investigator on NASA’s Discovery mission CONTOUR and a co-investigator of the Deep Impact mission.

Peering into the cosmos, Veverka focused on high-resolution imaging and photometry of planetary, asteroid and comet surfaces. He was one of the first to demonstrate that asteroids have well-developed regoliths (loose rock and dust that covers cosmic surfaces) and that Saturn’s moon Titan has a thick, cloudy atmosphere.

Other award winners include: James Van Allen (1994), Whipple (1985) and Gene Shoemaker (1984). Peter Goldreich, Cornell ’60, Ph.D. ’63, won the Kuiper Prize in 1992, while a professor at the California Institute of Technology. Goldreich’s graduate adviser was the late Cornell astronomer Tommy Gold.

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