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Linda J. Spilker - United States
TheWIFTS Foundation Visionary Award (Society)
Linda J. Spilker
Planetary Scientist
Linda J. Spilker is the recipient of TheWIFTS Foundation Visionary Award 2017 (Society). The Cassini Project was a bold visionary project to discover more about Saturn in the universe, and has revolutionized how scientists see the ringed planet. It’s encouraging to the equality of gender that a ‘singular woman as an individual’ with her own passion and vision led 300 scientists from around the world on the Cassini project, which started 30 years ago and ended in September 2017

Dr. Linda J. Spilker is a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and has had the remarkable opportunity to participate in NASA and international planetary missions for over 40 years. As Cassini Project Scientist, and passionate science advocate, both for Cassini and within the planetary science community, in Spilkers’s role as Project scientist she continually promoted ways to follow up on new discoveries, and encouraged the flight team to think outside the box. She developed strong leadership skills managing a team of 300 international scientists who worked on the Cassiniflagship mission.

Her experience as the Cassini Project scientist also gave her the opportunity to become familiar with the European Space Agency (ESA) and science research institutions in its member countries. One of Cassini’s unique strengths is the extent of the program’s international collaboration, leading to both cost sharing and enhanced scientific return.

Spilker was also a Co-Investigator with the Cassini Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) team. As a member of the CIRS team she was heavily involved in Saturn ring research as it relates to the thermal behavior and evolution of Saturn’s ring system to address questions of ring origin and age. She was the science lead for the CIRS ring team, managing the planning, analysis and publication of CIRS ring research.

Linda J. Spilker first worked in scientific roles on the Voyager mission for 12 years as the two spacecraft flew by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. She was the science liaison to the project with the Infrared Radiometer and Spectrometer (IRIS) team and as a science associate with the Photopolarimeter Team. Spilker’s decade on Voyager was followed by almost three decades of science positions on the Cassini mission, which orbited around Saturn for 13 years.

Prior to working on Voyager she was a research assistant in the Geology Department at Caltech studying the lead and bismuth distribution in meteorite samples, with a focus on carbonaceous chondrites and early solar system history and formation. Those early days at Caltech cemented her interest in science.

Working on Voyager as a planetary explorer inspired Spilker to return to college while at JPL to earn both a master’s degree in physics and PhD in geophysics and space physics. For both of her theses she used ring data collected by Voyager at Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, some of which she helped plan.

She first started planning the mission that ultimately became Cassini in 1988, working with the science definition team to propose a follow-on mission to Voyager, which included a European Space Agency (ESA)-provided probe (Huygens) to parachute into the atmosphere of Saturn’s giant moon, Titan, and land softly on its surface.

In 2005 the robotic Huygens probe landed on Titan, Saturn's enigmatic moon
credit European Space Agency

Cassini is a flagship mission that included a highly successful international collaboration between NASA and ESA, leading to both significant cost sharing and enhanced scientific return. Cassini completed its mission in 2017 by plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn and vaporizing to protect the ocean worlds that Cassini had discovered.

Over the course of Spilker’s career, her mission roles grew to encompass mission leadership, strategic planning and tactical resource management as well as mission design, planning, operations and scientific data analysis.

Some of her main duties included setting scientific requirements and priorities on behalf of the Cassini program to assure that Cassini’s scientific goals are met, ensuring that the scientific return of the project was maximized within project budget and schedule constraints, and serving as the scientific spokesperson for Cassini.

Cassini was a highly successful scientific endeavor.

Most recently, she was Project Scientist for a new NASA New Frontiers proposal, Enceladus Life Finder (ELF) to go back to Saturn’s moon Enceladus to further explore the habitability of its subsurface, salty global ocean and to search for evidence of life. She used her Cassini expertise to contribute to the science goals and overall planning of this new mission.

Linda J. Spilker is also strongly committed to education and outreach, and has mentored postdocs and undergraduate students from countries around the world, who have analyzed Cassini data and published numerous first-authored papers over the past 10 years.

She is a member of the American Association of University Women and deeply believes in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) goals to expand the number of students who pursue STEM careers, including increased participation for women and minorities, and educating and preparing the next generation of scientists and engineers. She believes in inclusion, diversity and fairness in the workplace and in hiring new employees.

Spilker received her PhD summa cum laude from UCLA in 1992 in Geophysics and Space Physics while also working at JPL. She wrote a thesis on Wave Structure in Planetary Rings using Voyager photopolarimeter and radio science occultation data for the rings of Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The exciting ring data from the Voyager project led her to graduate school to continue to explore and understand these fascinating, complex systems. She has served as Principal Investigator in NASA research programs.

Linda J. Spilker is a member of and has organized and convened sessions for a number of scientific organizations including the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), American Geophysical Union (AGU), European Geosciences Union (EGU), and Asia Oceania Geosciences Society (AOGS). She also served on the Scientific Organizing Committee for DPS in 2006 and 2014. She has received a number of awards including two NASA Exceptional Service Medals.

Linda enjoys yoga and hiking in National Parks, including her favorite park, Yosemite, she is married, with three daughters and six grandchildren.

Some of her papers on the CIRS ring research have been published under L. Horn.


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