Lunar and Planetary Institute at a Glance

Mission: To serve as a scientific forum attracting world-class visiting scientists, postdoctoral fellows, students and resident experts; to support and serve the research community through newsletters, meetings and other activities; to collect and disseminate planetary data while facilitating the community’s access to NASA science; and to engage, excite and educate the public about space science.

Parent Organization: Universities Space Research Association

Top Official: Stephen Mackwell, director

Year Established: 1968

Location: Houston

Annual Budget: $10 million

Personnel: 65


SAN FRANCISCO — The Lunar and Planetary Institute (LPI) has experienced remarkable growth since Stephen Mackwell took the helm as director in 2002, doubling its budget from $5 million to $10 million and expanding its staff from 45 to 65.

This growth has been the result of a concerted effort to supplement the center’s long-term NASA support contract with grants for scientific research and funding for educational and outreach efforts. “It is a credit to the people here,” Mackwell said. “We asked the scientists to get more grant support for their research and to bring in support for [post-doctorate] researchers.”

That external funding now accounts for approximately one-half of LPI’s annual budget. LPI receives about $5 million a year from NASA under a long-term contract. The Institute now attracts another $5 million in funding, including about $2 million in science grants for principal investigators.

The largest grant supports the Center for Lunar Science and Exploration (CLSE), one of the first nodes of NASA’s Lunar Science Institute, a virtual organization established in 2008 to expand lunar science and exploration. In 2009, CLSE, a cooperative venture between LPI and the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, won a grant to investigate whether a storm of asteroids and comets bombarded the Earth and Moon 3.5 billion to 4 billion years ago, affecting the origin of life.

Roughly 50 senior scientists and university faculty members work with the CLSE, according to David Kring, CLSE principal investigator. In addition, CLSE has hosted about 20 undergraduate and graduate students working on lunar science and exploration research projects, Kring wrote Oct. 20 in an e-mail sent from Barringer meteor crater in Arizona, where he was exploring the site with 24 post-graduate students.

Kring, like LPI’s other scientists, spends approximately 50 percent of his time on his own research and the other 50 percent supporting lunar science education and outreach. Kring’s work focuses on the impact craters that form when asteroids and comets collide with planets. That research gained international attention in 1991 when Kring linked the discovery of the Chicxulub impact crater on the Yucatan Peninsula with the mass extinction of life on Earth 65 million years ago.

“The scientists [at LPI] have two roles,” Mackwell said. “One is to do cutting-edge scientific research. The other is to support NASA and the scientific community in a variety of ways.” LPI scientists supervise graduate students and post-graduate interns, serve on NASA committees and organize conferences and meetings, he added.

LPI’s largest annual meeting is the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, a five-day event sponsored by LPI and JSC that attracts more than 1,000 scientists and researchers from around the world. Originally, that conference and the institute itself focused exclusively on lunar research.

In 1968, then-U.S. President Lyndon Johnson announced plans to establish the Lunar Science Institute in Houston to strengthen cooperation between NASA and university researchers seeking access to Apollo-era data and lunar samples.

Over time, the institute’s focus broadened and its name changed to reflect growing interest in planets. “When we started, it was all because of the Moon,” Mackwell said. “Now, we cover the gamut of planetary sciences.”

In the years ahead, LPI researchers will play a growing role in planetary missions conducted by NASA and international space agencies, Mackwell said. “In planetary science, so much of the excitement comes from being involved in missions,” he added.

Paul Spudis, LPI senior staff scientist, is the principal investigator for a miniature synthetic aperture radar that flew on the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Chandrayaan-1 mission and the deputy principal investigator for a similar instrument on NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Those instruments found evidence of water ice in the permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles, an important discovery because that water can be used to support life or create propellant for further exploration, Spudis said.

Two other LPI scientists, Walter Kiefer and Paul Schenk, are participating scientists on NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is scheduled to encounter the asteroid Vesta in 2011. LPI scientist Steve Clifford serves as deputy science team leader for a ground-penetrating radar scheduled to fly on the NASA-European Space Agency ExoMars mission rover and a ground-penetrating radar to equip that mission’s lander. In addition, Allan Treiman, LPI’s associate director for science, is a co-investigator on a proposed mission to Venus.

As NASA and Congress begin to pay greater attention to near-Earth objects, LPI researchers are likely to become more involved in that research, said Mackwell. “We will be more involved both in terms of the development of the human [spaceflight] program as it looks to send humans out to near-Earth objects, but also in efforts to characterize these things because of the threat they may pose to Earth,” said Mackwell, who recently served on a U.S. National Research Council committee directed by the U.S. Congress to study the threat of near-Earth objects.

“There is a very small probability of impact, but some of the things are large enough that if they impact, they could end civilization,” Mackwell said. “Even a modest-size one could create severe destruction to the infrastructure on Earth and cause local devastation. The small ones are once-in-a-hundred-year events, the really big ones are once-in-a-million-year-events or even less.”

Because these events are so rare, it’s hard to determine what level of resources should be devoted to preventing collisions with near-Earth objects, he said. “Certainly, characterizing what is out there, understanding where it is and what you can do to mitigate the risk is important,” Mackwell said. “We are trying to grow our capability in that area because I see a lot of opportunity there.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...