Sept. 27, 2001

Honoring Veverka, a man who chases snowballs and discovers 'continents'

Joe Veverka
University Photography
Joseph Veverka, professor and chair of the Department of Astronomy, shown in his office with a model of the CONTOUR mission craft.

Soon after dusk and after working all day on the Mariner 9 mission, a young post-doctoral researcher, Joseph Veverka, stepped outside the building at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While the Pasadena, Calif., heavens unveiled stars on that autumnal night in 1971, the astronomer noticed above the western horizon, an ethereal, pale red dot.

"There it was, Mars. That's when it struck me about the planet that had been seen for generations and through history. That's when it struck me that something had changed," said Veverka. "It was at that moment that I realized that humans had made tremendous progress."

Much progress indeed, with thanks to dedicated astronomers like Veverka, who three decades later is chair of Cornell's Department of Astronomy and who will celebrate his 60th birthday with a unique gift from his colleagues: a symposium, "Exploration of the Universe," to be held Oct. 4-6 on campus.

Veverka was born in Pelhrimov, Czechoslovakia (now in the Czech Republic), in 1941. When a communist government took over the country after World War II, his family fled to France in 1948. By 1951, the family had settled in Canada in the northern Ontario town of Cochrane. Under the large, dark night skies of the Arctic watershed, the budding astronomer grew up. "Ever since I can remember, I was interested in astronomy, making my own charts of the sky, observing every chance I could get," he said.

Examining that piece of heaven was one thing, understanding it was quite another. For Veverka, scant information about astronomy was available in the Cochrane public library or the local bookstore (and now the bookstore is gone). "For years, I was learning on my own," Veverka recalls.

Seeking any information about astronomy, and comets in particular, in the late 1950s, he came across a book edited by J. Allen Hynek,Astrophysics: A Topical Symposium Commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Yerkes Observatory and a Half Century of Progress in Astrophysics. Veverka recalls that the book, the only one he owned on astronomy, featured technical articles by notable 20th century astronomers. "It was a great motivation to learn math and physics, just so that I could understand the articles contained within the book," he said.

Absorbing math and physics at Queen's College, now Queen's University, in Kingston, Ont., Veverka believed he could not earn a living as an astronomer, so he chose to major in physics. After earning undergraduate and graduate degrees, he began work on a physics doctorate at Harvard University.

One day he wandered into the office of the eminent astronomer William Liller, then-chair of Harvard's Department of Astronomy. "I had expected to meet a secretary who would keep me out of his office. I walked in and there is this guy walking around. I tell the man I am looking to speak with Dr. Liller and he says he's Bill Liller. He said, 'Come right in.' "

Liller suggested to Veverka that he speak with other department professors, such as a young assistant professor named Carl Sagan and Fred Whipple, a professor who had supplanted the old sandbank theory of comets (a loose conglomerate of ice and dust) with his theory that comets are "dirty snowballs." "He [Liller] seemed to be doing things and talking about things he was excited about," said Veverka. "This had a big effect on me."

Veverka changed his doctoral subject to astronomy, and Whipple took Veverka under his wing. Veverka smiles when he remembers his time as Whipple's last graduate student. "I learned my management style from Fred Whipple. His method of management was management at it simplest form: hire good people and then leave them alone. Years later, I found myself doing that same thing," he said.

In 1974, the much-hyped comet Kahoutek appearance disappointed the media, but Veverka knew the comet's visit yielded vast amounts of information about cometary nuclei and coma behavior. "But any [comet] model we see on the outside may not give us the true picture of what happens inside the nucleus," he told then-Cornell News Service science writer Dava Sobel. He suggested that a spacecraft should be sent to check out a comet. "The idea may sound far-fetched, but such a journey is being planned," he told Sobel.

That far-fetched journey would be 28 years in the future: The launch of the Comet Nucleus Tour, or CONTOUR, the mission for which Veverka is scientific director, is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral on July 2002, with its first comet flyby in November 2003. (Interestingly, it will fly by comet Encke, the comet that inspired Whipple to coin the term "dirty snowball.") The $154 million unmanned mission will take images of at least three comet nuclei and analyze the dust flowing from them.

Veverka has been a part of many important space projects, including serving with his late colleague Sagan on Mariner 9, a benchmark mission that globally photographed Mars. It was this mission that uncovered dry riverbeds and the enormity of Vallis Marineris, Mariner Valley, which dwarfs Earth's Grand Canyon.

He also was an astronomer for the Viking mission to Mars; the Voyager mission to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and beyond; the Galileo mission to Jupiter; the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous, NEAR, and he helped to engineer last February's controlled landing on 433 Eros, the first landing on an asteroid.

"How fortunate I am to have had these experiences," said Veverka. "These are not opportunities that many humans get. It's like being able to be there when they discover six or seven continents."

The symposium program, which is free and open to the public, is:

Thursday, Oct. 4: "Water on Mars, Latest Data and Implications," a public lecture presented by Michael Malin, Malin Space Science Systems, San Diego, Calif., 8 p.m., Schwartz Auditorium, Rockefeller Hall.

Friday, Oct. 5: "Exploration of Mars" is the topic at the Biotechnology Building Conference Room. The opening address is by Philip Lewis, the Harold Tanner Dean of Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences, at 9 a.m. Among the morning lectures:

  • "Martian Mineralogy," Larry Soderblom, United States Geological Survey;
  • "Roving on Mars," Steven Squyres, Cornell professor of astronomy;
  • "Work of the Wind on Mars," Ronald Greeley, Arizona State University;
  • "Arctic Analogues to Martian Mysteries," Pascal Lee, NASA Ames Research Center.

The afternoon portion of Friday's symposium moves to the Schwartz Auditorium and focuses on the topic "Small Bodies" of the cosmos. William Liller, now at the Isaac Newton Institute, will provide the opening remarks at 1:35 p.m. Some of the afternoon lectures include:

  • "The Atmospheres of Triton and Pluto as Revealed by Stellar Occultation," James Elliott, Massachusetts Institute of Technology;
  • "Photometry," Bonnie J. Buratti, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL);
  • "Small Satellites: Non-Intuitive Worlds," Peter Thomas, Cornell;
  • "Asteroids Up Close," Clark R. Chapman, Southwest Research Institute;
  • "Comets," Anita Cochran, University of Texas.

Saturday, Oct. 6: The topic is "Everything You Want to Know About Space Missions," beginning at 9:30 a.m. Among the day's lectures:

  • "Birth of the Discovery Missions," Wesley Huntress, Carnegie Institution of Washington;
  • "Adventures in Discovery," Michael Belton, Belton Space Exploration Initiatives;
  • "Mariner 9 and Viking," Geoff Briggs, NASA Ames Research Center.
  • "Voyager," Edward C. Stone, JPL.
  • "Spacecraft to the Icy Satellites," Robert H. Brown, University of Arizona;
  • "Galileo," Torrence V. Johnson, JPL.