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Leadership In Space Observations Cast Planetary Astronomer into ARCS Alumni Hall of Fame

Posted on Tuesday, February 14, 2023

ARCS recognizes alum for significant contributions to astronomy that enhanced our understanding of planetary science and the frontier of space.

“People would say to me, ‘I thought only smart people got into MIT.’” That comment echoed through the zoom meeting as Heidi B. Hammel, PhD, and nationally renowned astrophysicist recalled her early days as an undergrad.  “Back then, there just weren’t that many women in the field of astronomy or physics, let alone at MIT.  Thankfully today that has changed.” 

ARCS Foundation recently recognized Dr. Hammel as the 2023 inductee into the prestigious ARCS Alumni Hall of Fame. She graduated from MIT in 1982 and received an ARCS Scholar award in 1985 while completing a PhD in physics and astronomy at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa.

"When I was a young student in physics, women were very much a minority, and I often felt inadequate. The recognition provided by ARCS Foundation was a wonderful boost – it gave me confidence that I belonged in science and encouraged me to persevere."

ARCS Hall of Fame inductees are ARCS Scholar Alumni who have made outstanding contributions to the advancement of science in innovation, discovery, economic impact, the development of future scientists, and enhancement of US scientific superiority.

Dr. Hammel is recognized for her expertise in planetary science and for her work with the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescopes to explore the frontier of space.

A go-to expert on Neptune and Uranus, Dr. Hammel also led the team that monitored the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9's collision with Jupiter in 1994, which caused an impact site that was larger than Earth. She saw the potential for similar random planetary destruction as a danger to Earth, and her team began researching every aspect of the incident.

"By combining the observations of the collisions with Hubble, and the models that existed at that time, our team was able to find a much more realistic understanding of how these collisions take place in an atmosphere, where the energy is deposited, and what the patterns of devastation on the Earth would be," she said. 

Nearly 20 years later, the foundational research that was booted by Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 would lead NASA to execute the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) mission, the first-ever mission dedicated to investigating and testing asteroid deflection by changing an asteroid's motion in space. It was a resounding success. 

Dr. Hammel's experience with the Hubble Telescope led to her appointment as Interdisciplinary Scientist for the JWST where she has served for 20 years. After its successful launch in 2021, she received 100 hours of guaranteed research time. Then, Dr. Hammel did something unprecedented. "I gave it all away to younger people in my community," she said. "I just encouraged them to go forth and figure out what we can do with this telescope. Go and find what the most exciting science in the solar system will be."

Today, Dr. Hammel is the Vice President for Science for the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA). AURA operates world-class astronomical observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for NASA and the National Science Foundation's NOIRLab and National Solar Observatory.  She is also a Senior Research Scientist for the Space Science Institute and serves as Vice President of The Planetary Society, which advocates for advancing space science and planetary defense.

An avid proponent of lifelong learning and opportunities for all, Dr. Hammel is also a skilled science communicator. She received the Public Understanding of Science Award from the Exploratorium in San Francisco in 1998. In 2002, she received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society's Division for Planetary Sciences for outstanding communication to the public. "I love to talk to different communities about what we do in astronomy and what a scientist does in general," she said. "I want to excite people about science because it's not about memorizing facts; science is about discovery." 

Upon receiving this recognition for the Hall of Fame, Dr. Hammel said, "It is an incredible honor to be recognized by ARCS as part of this group of people who have all made significant contributions to the world… I think it's important for us to recognize scholarship in whatever form it takes. I'm really excited and thankful for this honor."

"Dr. Hammel has made a truly incredible impact on how we understand space and approach planetary research," said ARCS National President Caron Ogg. "We are thrilled to welcome her into the distinguished ARCS Alumni Hall of Fame."

As an ARCS Alumni Hall of Fame member, Dr. Hammel joins the company of 14 other inductees.

Click here to watch the acceptance video. Click here to read the full press release.