John is over the moon with planetary science award

Former Nelson and College student and now NASA scientist Dr John Spencer (s)
Former Nelson and College student and now NASA scientist Dr John Spencer (s)

Former Nelson and Colne College student Dr John Spencer is over the moon after winning a coveted planetary science award.

John, who also went to Colne Grammar School, is now a scientist at Southwest Research Institute and was awarded the 2016 Planetary Sciences Section Whipple Award from the American Geophysical Union.

The award, named for comet astronomer Fred Whipple, recognises individuals who have made outstanding contributions in the field of planetary science.

John will receive the award and present the Whipple Lecture at the 2016 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco in December.

“John has revolutionised the study of moons in the outer solar system by deciphering what spacecraft observations tell us about how these fascinating objects formed and evolved,” said Dr Robin Canup, an associate vice president in SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division.

“Using data from the Cassini mission, he was the first to recognise that excess energy is radiating from the south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, a key piece of evidence pointing towards the likely presence of an internal ocean. This monumental discovery has elevated Enceladus to a prime target for future NASA missions.”

John, who went to Cambridge University and the Univeristy of Arizona, is best known for his studies of moons of the outer planets using theoretical models, Earth-based telescopes, spacecraft observations and the Hubble Space Telescope.

He is a science team member on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, leading the search for Kuiper Belt targets beyond Pluto and led the successful search for potential space debris to avoid on Pluto approach.

He serves on the science team for the Cassini Saturn orbiter and is helping develop NASAs Europa mission. His discoveries include finding oxygen on the surfaces of Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, as well as identifying volcanic gas and large asymmetries in the atmosphere of Io. His theoretical work has improved the understanding of nitrogen frost on Pluto and Triton, water frost on Jupiter’s moons, heat radiation from asteroids and helped solve the 300-year-old mystery of the bizarre black-and-white appearance of Saturn’s moon Iapetus.

“This year’s section and focus group awardees and named lecturers represent some of the brightest scientific minds in Earth and space sciences,” said Margaret Leinen, AGU president. “It is an incredible achievement to be selected and recognised from among their scientific peer groups.”