As the rocket blasts from the launch pad next week carrying
NASA’s Comet Nucleus Tour (CONTOUR) mission to outer space, it will carry
with it the thoughts and hopes of many earthbound scientists. But none of
these scientists is more eminent than Dr. Fred L. Whipple, who serves as a
member of the CONTOUR Science Team and its inspirational leader. At the
age of 95, Whipple is the oldest-ever member of a space mission science
team. The CONTOUR mission will add yet another accomplishment to Whipple’s
long and distinguished career.

Fred Whipple, often referred to affectionately as "Dr. Comet," originated
the "dirty snowball" model of comet structure in 1950. He theorized that,
rather than loose conglomerates of dust and rock, comets were solid chunks
of ice with dust and rocky particles mixed in. This model was confirmed 36
years later when the European Space Agency’s Giotto mission passed by
Halley’s Comet.

In addition to his work on comets and the solar system, Whipple served as
director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory from 1955 to 1973.
In 1982, the former Mt. Hopkins Observatory in Arizona was renamed the
Fra.. Whipple Observatory in his honor. But Whipple’s greatest honor was
receiving the President’s Award for Distinguished Public Service from
President Kennedy on June 12, 1963. This award is the highest U.S.
civilian honor for government service, and was bestowed on Whipple for his
leadership in creating a worldwide network to track orbiting satellites.

CONTOUR is a NASA Discovery mission to conduct close-up studies of the
nucleus of at least two comets. Comets formed from the same nebula of
material that formed the planets, so their study can tell us about the
birth of our solar system. The CONTOUR mission will enable scientists to
compare and contrast these frozen bodies in order to learn about their
diversity. CONTOUR scientists will also study how comets evolve as they
approach the sun. Current plans call for CONTOUR to visit Comets 2P/Encke
and 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann.

A photo of Fred Whipple is available online at More information
on the CONTOUR mission is at

Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center
for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian
Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA
scientists organized into seven research divisions study the origin,
evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.

For more information, contact:

David A. Aguilar

Director of Public Affairs

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics


Christine Lafon

Public Affairs Specialist

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Phone: 617-495-7463, Fax: 617-495-7016