Press Release

Faith Vilas to Direct MMT Observatory

By SpaceRef Editor
April 25, 2005
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Faith Vilas is the new director of the MMT Observatory at Mt. Hopkins, Ariz. She will replace interim director J.T. Williams in December.

Vilas was appointed to the post by The University of Arizona and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

The new job at MMTO will bring Vilas back to Southern Arizona, where she earned a doctorate in planetary sciences from UA in 1984. She will leave her post at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to assume her full duties as MMT director. Currently, she is chief of the planetary astronomy group in NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate. Vilas has extensive experience in using ground- and space-based observatories.

“I am looking forward to the challenges of serving the MMT as director,” Vilas said. “It’s an amazing facility that combines a 6.5-meter (21-foot) telescope with an extensive complement of instruments. It represents some of the finest facilities that astronomy has today.”

Vilas will coordinate tasks with Williams until December because she is committed to working for NASA on a Japanese space project until that time. That work involves the Hayabusa mission, which is being directed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. The mission is scheduled to reach asteroid Itokawa in September 2005 and return samples to Earth in July 2007.

Vilas earned a BA in astronomy from Wellesley College (1973) and a master’s in earth and planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1975).

She was a graduate research associate at UA from 1979 to 1984, where she completed a thesis on the origin of outer-belt asteroids. Her other graduate work involved telescope instrument design, image restoration of telescopic planetary images, and observations star occultations by solar system objects.

In 1984, Vilas was part of a UA team that discovered Neptune’s rings. With her graduate thesis advisor Bradford A. Smith, she also designed the coronograph-spectrograph used to obtain the first image of a circumstellar disk around another star, Beta Pictoris.

“Faith has a strong research record, but more relevant for this particular position was her experience in both technical and managerial areas,” said UA astronomy Professor Dennis Zaritsky, who chaired the search committee. “It is quite rare to find someone with as broad a background. Faith is an energetic, highly engaged and engaging person, the best person to lead the MMTO.”

“The search committee was impressed by Dr. Vilas’ administrative experience and knowledge of astronomical instrumentation,” said Charles Alcock, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “We’re confident in her ability to articulate an ambitious vision for the MMTO.”

Contact Information

Faith Vilas 281-483-5056 (office) 281-851-8947 (mobile phone)

Dennis Zaritsky 520-621-6027 Related Web site

SpaceRef staff editor.