Institute for Astronomy Home
IFA Home Page   |    Search   |    Other Editions    No. 21 - 2006 
  All Articles  


Faculty Profile: Tobias Owen

Tobias Owen

Photo by Karen Teramura

Tobias Owen is one of the world's leading solar system astronomers. His areas of expertise include comets, the origin and evolution of planetary and satellite atmospheres, and the origin and distribution of life in the Universe. His scientific achievements include the discovery of the rings of Jupiter, and noble (inert) gases and heavy water on Mars, deducing the early existence of a new class of solar system building blocks called "solar composition icy planetesimals," and determining the importance of deuterium (heavy hydrogen) and other isotopes for the history and formation mechanisms of our solar system.

In a career spanning over 40 years, "Toby," as he is known to his friends and colleagues, has worked on numerous space missions, including Apollo 15 and 16 (launched in 1969), the Viking mission to Mars (1976), the Voyager missions to the outer planets (1977), and the Galileo mission to Jupiter (1989). In addition, Owen uses ground-based telescopes and laboratory experiments to conduct his research. He is currently collaborating with Akiva Bar-Nun of Tel Aviv University, whose laboratory produces low-temperature analogs of the comet nuclei that may have brought the elements and compounds essential for the origin of life to the very early Earth.

In 1982, Owen was appointed the American science team leader for the development of a joint NASA-European Space Agency (ESA) project that became the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moon Titan (see Na Kilo Hoku no. 11). His involvement went on to include lobbying Congress and the NASA administrator to get the mission approved and funded. After working on Cassini-Huygens for over 20 years, he was thrilled when the Cassini spacecraft successfully went into orbit at Saturn in 2004 and the Huygens probe finally entered Titan's atmosphere on January 14, 2005, with each spacecraft flawlessly performing a highly intricate set of maneuvers.

Owen refers to Titan as the "Peter Pan" of the solar system—because of its great distance from the Sun, its development was frozen billions of years ago. Titan is larger than Mercury and, like Earth, has an atmosphere dominated by nitrogen, so it gives us the opportunity to see what Earth may have been like in its earliest days. Huygens parachuted through Titan's atmosphere for nearly two and a half hours, and continued to transmit data back to Earth via the Cassini orbiter for more than an hour after landing. It found a world that is chemically different from Earth—it rains methane rather than water—but with a landscape that is remarkably similar to that of our planet. Systems of river channels cut through "land" made of thick, permanently frozen water ice that is coated with "dirt" made of precipitated smog particles, and lakes of liquid methane dot the landscape.

This year Owen received the University of Hawaii's Regents Medal for Excellence in Research, and he shared the Grand Prix Marcel Dassault of the French Academy of Sciences with two colleagues for developing the Huygens probe. In 1977, he received the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement for his studies of the martian atmosphere based on data from the Viking mission.

Owen is the author of over 300 scientific articles. He also co-authored two introductory college-level books, The Search for Life in the Universe with Donald Goldsmith and The Planetary System with David Morrison, both now in third editions.

He lives in Honolulu with his wife Natasha, who serves as the honorary consul general of Russia in Hawaii.