NASA conferred the Exceptional Public Service Medal to Michael A’Hearn, one of the world’s leading comet scientists, posthumously on 12 June 2017. A’Hearn passed away on 29 May 2017 at his home in University Park, Maryland. He was 76.
A’Hearn, astronomer and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland (UMD), was awarded posthumously at the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) meeting at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
The exceptional service medal is for his fundamental work on comets and small bodies of the solar system, leadership in space missions and ensuring public access to data from NASA missions and related projects.
Speaking about A’Hearn, Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, who presented the award to members of A’Hearn’s family said that he devoted his entire life to exploration and his work truly transformed the understanding of comets, their composition and how they interact within the universe.
About Michael A’Hearn
• Born on 17 November 1940, Michael A’Hearn was an elected fellow of the AAAS. His studies focused on comets as well as asteroids. He has authored over 100 papers published in journals.
• He aided in the development of systems for surveying abundances in comets as well as techniques for determining the sizes of cometary nuclei which uses optical and infrared measurements.
• He was the principal investigator for the NASA Deep Impact mission, EPOXI that had the dual purpose of studying extrasolar planets and comet Hartley 2.
• He also served as the co-investigator on NASA’s Stardust-NExT mission to re-visit comet Tempel 1 and also on two instruments on ESA’s Rosetta mission: the OSIRIS camera and the NASA ultraviolet spectrograph "Alice."
• Another major contribution by A'Hearn to planetary science was as the principal investigator for the Small Bodies Node, which is the part of NASA's Planetary Data System (PDS) that specializes in the archiving, cataloguing and distributing of scientific data sets relevant to asteroids, comets and interplanetary dust.
• Under his leadership, the Small Bodies Node developed from a two-person group to a strong, UMD-based organization of 18 scientists and programmers.
• In June 1986, the main-belt asteroid 3192 A'Hearn, discovered by American astronomer Edward Bowell, was named after him to honor his contributions to cometary science.
• A’Hearn also received the Gerard P. Kuiper Prize for outstanding lifetime achievement in the field of planetary science from the American Astronomical Society Division in 2008.