MESSENGER Principal Investigator Sean Solomon to Receive National Medal of Science

Press Release From: Johns Hopkins University
Posted: Friday, October 3, 2014


MESSENGER principal investigator Sean Solomon will receive the nation’s top scientific honor, the National Medal of Science. Solomon, the director of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, will be awarded the medal at a White House ceremony later this year.

“These scholars and innovators have expanded our understanding of the world, made invaluable contributions to their fields, and helped improve countless lives,” President Obama said in a statement on Friday. “Our nation has been enriched by their achievements, and by all the scientists and technologists across America dedicated to discovery, inquiry, and invention.”

As head of NASA’s MESSENGER mission to Mercury, Solomon has led the most comprehensive investigation yet of the closest planet to the Sun. Some of his other projects are household names in space science: the Magellan mission to Venus, the Mars Global Surveyor mission and the GRAIL mission to the Moon, which launched in 2011 and has mapped the Moon’s gravitational field in unprecedented detail.

After nearly seven years traveling through space, the MESSENGER probe entered orbit about Mercury in 2011 and has been continuously mapping the planet’s interior, surface, and atmosphere. Recent discoveries include ice in Mercury’s northern craters and an iron-rich core fractionally far larger than Earth’s. The probe will continue gathering data about the planet before it crash lands on Mercury at the end of March next year.

A geophysicist who has spent much of his career studying Earth’s neighboring planets as well as Earth itself, Solomon became director of Lamont-Doherty in 2012 after serving for nearly two decades as director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, D.C. After finishing his Ph.D. in geophysics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971, he stayed on to teach and conduct research there for two decades. In 1978, he published a paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that explained how relatively small bodies like the Moon and Mercury evolved without the multiple tectonic plates found on Earth. This “one-plate planet” idea still holds in understanding the tectonics of the solar system’s rocky inner planets.

At MIT, Solomon ran one of the earliest ocean-bottom seismometer labs. He investigated Earth’s mid-ocean ridges by leaving those instruments at the bottom of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans to record earthquakes on the seafloor and measure Earth’s structure below. As a result, he made important contributions to understanding how Earth’s multiple plates generate new crust below the sea, where most plates intersect. He moved to Carnegie in 1992. Among other roles, he served as principal investigator for Carnegie’s part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, which seeks to understand the origin of life on earth, and its potential to exist elsewhere.

Solomon is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received numerous other awards, among them the Geological Society of America’s G. K. Gilbert Award and American Geophysical Union’s Harry H. Hess Medal. When he stepped down as a director at Carnegie in 2011, colleagues arranged to have a previously discovered asteroid named after him. Asteroid 25137 Seansolomon, about a mile and half wide, is currently orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter.

The National Medal of Science was created in 1959 and is administered for the White House by the National Science Foundation. Awarded annually, it recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering. The President receives nominations from a committee of presidential appointees based on their contributions to chemistry, engineering, computing, mathematics, and the biological, behavioral/social, and physical sciences.

Paulette Campbell
+1 240-228-6792 **

MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) is a NASA-sponsored scientific investigation of the planet Mercury and the first space mission designed to orbit the planet closest to the Sun. The MESSENGER spacecraft was launched on August 3, 2004, and entered orbit about Mercury on March 18, 2011 (UTC), to begin its primary mission -- a yearlong study of its target planet. MESSENGER’s first extended mission began on March 18, 2012, and ended one year later. MESSENGER is now in a second extended mission, which is scheduled to conclude in March 2015. Sean C. Solomon, the Director of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, leads the mission as Principal Investigator. The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory built and operates the MESSENGER spacecraft and manages this Discovery-class mission for NASA.

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