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Dr. Faith Vilas

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Senior Scientist

Currently resides in TX
fvilas [at]
Areas of Expertise
Targets: Asteroids, Dwarf planets, Iapetus, Mercury, Moon, Small satellites
Disciplines/Techniques: Ground-based observing, Remote sensing, Space-based observing, Spectroscopy
Missions: Hayabusa 1 (Japan), Hayabusa2 (Japan), LCROSS, LRO, MESSENGER
Mission Roles: Mission science team
Instruments: Cameras, Imaging spectrometers, Spectrometers
Facilities: Cerro Tololo, MMT

Research Interests

Dr. Faith Vilas’ research has focused on both ground and space-based telescopic reflectance observations of a variety of solar system objects. She has published many leading articles on the spectrophotometric and compositional properties of low-albedo asteroids, dwarf planets (Pluto, 4 Vesta, Eris), Mercury, the Moon, and many of the outer planet satellites. Her work includes the definitive ground-based spectral observations of Mercury (no iron there!) that have been confirmed by the MESSENGER mission’s observations. She has contributed to the first mineral identifications in the MESSENGER imaging data in her examination of Hollows terrains. Dr. Vilas has been a leader in the identification of aqueous alteration on asteroids. She is studying the phenomenon of space weathering of planetary regoliths, and has developed a new soil maturity test for S-complex asteroids.

Professional History

Dr. Vilas began her professional journey with a Bachelor of Arts in Astronomy from Wellesley College in 1973. She completed her Master of Science at MIT in 1975 with a thesis examining the spectral reflectance curves of Mercury. In 1984, she graduated from the University of Arizona with her Doctoral degree. Her doctoral work included studies of the nature and origin of outer solar system asteroids based on reflectance spectrophotometry. While working on her doctoral degree, she completed a minor study subject in instrumentation and image processing, in addition to coursework towards a masters degree in systems and industrial engineering. In 1987, she received a paramedic’s license from San Jacinto Junior College, and in 2008, received a Certificate of Legislative Affairs from Georgetown University. Dr. Vilas’ career prior to joining PSI in 2011 has included Directorship of the MMT Observatory (2005 – 2010), Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters (2001 – 2002), and a research scientist at NASA Johnson Space Center (1987 – 2005). She was a member of the 1987 – 1988 NSF/NASA Antarctic meteorite search field team, not only searching for meteorites in the trans-Antarctic mountains, but also serving as the medic for the remote team. Her experience base includes a post as a Senior Research Assistant at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (1975 – 1977) and a Senior Scientist Associate at Lockheed Electronics Company (1977 – 1978) where she supported the re-analysis of orbital x-ray fluorescence data acquired by Apollos 15 and 16. MMT Observatory accomplishments under her tenure included the first-ever astronomical extended-field multiple laser guide star adaptive optics observations, and visible to near-infrared observations of the lunar south pole as a participating facility during NASA’s 2009 Lunar Crater OSS mission impact. At NASA Headquarters, she served as Program Scientist for the Discovery, Dawn, and NEAR Data Analysis programs in addition to collateral assignments to the NASA Office of Inspector General, assisting in inspections and audits. She has been principal investigator on multiple scientific and technical grants. Dr. Vilas also served as a U.S. Representative on the Japanese Hayabusa mission (1999 – 2011). During her tenure here at PSI, she served as Chief Scientist for the NASA Planetary Data System archive (2011 – 2015) and was a Participating Scientist on NASA’s MESSENGER mission to Mercury (2007 – 2016). She is currently a Participating Scientist on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Lyman Alpha Mapping Spectrometer, and member of the Hayabusa2 Joint Science Team. She is the Project Scientist for PSI’s Atsa Suborbital Observatory and served the NSF as a Program Director (2015 - 2018).  She has accepted appointment as the inaugural Editor of the Planetary Science Journal.

Honors and Awards

2020, Legacy Fellow, American Astronomical Society
2019, Fred Whipple Award, Planetary Science Section, American Geophysical Union
2018, Harold Masursky Award for Meritorious Service, Division for Planetary Sciences, American Astronomical Society
2012, Distinguished Alumna, Evanston Township High School
2003, NASA Scientific Special Award for Hayabusa NASA Scientific Team
1992, NASA Group Achievement Award for Space Environment Definition
1990, Certificate of Commendation, NASA Johnson Space Center
1989, NASA Group Achievement Award for Orbital Debris Team
1988, Antarctica Service Medal, Department of the Navy
1988, Minor Planet 3507 Vilas
1984, National Research Council Resident Research Associateship

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