Faculty Profile: 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.