The Planetary Science Institute is pleased to announce that Dr. Faith Vilas is joining the institute to lead the Atsa Suborbital Observatory Project, pushing the boundaries of human-tended observing into outer space.

The Atsa project will use crewed suborbital commercial spacecraft with a specially designed telescope to provide low-cost space-based observations above the contaminating atmosphere of the Earth, while avoiding some operational constraints of satellite telescope systems.

Dr. Vilas has been developing the Atsa Suborbital Observatory with collaborator Dr. Luke Sollitt from the Physics Department of The Citadel. “At the PSI, we have an organizational framework within which we can bring Atsa fully to life,” Vilas said.

Dr. Vilas has a long and distinguished career as a prominent planetary astronomer, providing new insights into our understanding of the composition and history of the asteroid belt, constraining heating in the early solar system, and expanding evidence for water throughout the asteroid belt. As a scientist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, she designed a telescope system for the space shuttle to detect and characterize orbital debris at low-Earth orbit through geosynchronous orbit. At NASA Headquarters, Dr. Vilas was the program scientist for the Discovery Program, NASA’s solar system exploration mission workhorse. She has been a U.S. representative to the Japanese Hayabusa mission science team, whose spacecraft recently returned to Earth potentially carrying the first samples collected from an asteroid. Presently, she is a science team member on NASA’s MESSENGER mission to the planet Mercury.

For her accomplishments, Dr. Vilas was honored by the designation of Minor Planet 3507 Vilas by the International Astronomical Union, and she has received numerous awards for her work at NASA.

Since 2005, Dr. Vilas has been director of the MMT Observatory, a joint venture of the University of Arizona and Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Vilas will be retiring from her position with the MMT Observatory at the end of December 2010, at which time she will begin her activities at PSI.

“My greatest pleasure over the past five years has been the opportunity to work with the first rate staff of the MMT Observatory. They are highly skilled and dedicated to supporting the astronomical community,” Dr. Vilas said. “I look forward to continuing to use this wonderful facility as an observer in the future.”

Dr. Vilas earned a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Wellesley College (1973), a master’s in earth and planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1975), and her doctorate in planetary sciences from the University of Arizona (1984). As a graduate student in 1984, Vilas was part of the team that discovered Neptune’s rings. She also designed the coronograph used to obtain the first image of a circumstellar disk around another star, Beta Pictoris, with her graduate thesis advisor Bradford A. Smith.

In addition to being an accomplished planetary astronomer, Dr. Vilas is also a life-long pilot and has had a parallel career as a volunteer licensed paramedic in the state of Texas. While working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, she also co-founded an animal rescue shelter in the southeast Houston area and served on its board of directors.

Dr. Mark V. Sykes, CEO and director of the Planetary Science Institute, looks forward to Dr. Vilas and her work on the Atsa Suborbital Observatory becoming affiliated with PSI. “We are very honored to have Dr. Vilas on board. She will be expanding our activities in new and exciting directions with human space flight that will greatly advance our knowledge of near-Earth asteroids, comets and other parts of the solar system and universe.” he said.

“We look forward to making future announcements about the Atsa Suborbital Observatory under the leadership of Dr. Vilas. Design studies are under way and we will be putting up a website on the project after Dr. Vilas completes her work at the MMT Observatory,” Sykes said.

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The Planetary Science Institute ( is a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation dedicated to solar system exploration. It is headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, where it was founded in 1972. PSI scientists are involved in numerous NASA and international missions, the study of Mars and other planets, the Moon, asteroids, comets, interplanetary dust, impact physics, the origin of the solar system, extra-solar planet formation, dynamics, the rise of life, and other areas of research. They conduct fieldwork in North America, Australia and Africa. They also are actively involved in science education and public outreach through school programs, children’s books, popular science books and art. PSI scientists are based in 15 states, the United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Russia and Australia.