NASA Silver Achievement Medal Awarded to Richard P. Binzel

EAPS News
Friday, November 17, 2017

NASA Silver Achievement Medal awarded to Richard P. Binzel for exceptional outstanding contributions to the astronomical characterization of the OSIRIS-REx mission target asteroid Bennu.

NASA's most prestigious honor awards are approved by the Administrator and presented to a number of carefully selected individuals and groups of individuals, both Government and non-Government, who have distinguished themselves by making outstanding contributions to the Agency's mission. The Chair of the Incentive Awards Board (IAB) annually requests nominations for the various NASA honor awards. After a rigorous review, the nominations are forwarded to the IAB chair for approval. NASA medals and/or certificates are, subsequently, presented to the award recipients by the Agency's highest officials at the annual awards ceremonies held at NASA Headquarters and each NASA Center.

Silver Achievement Medal (SAM)

This prestigious NASA Silver Achievement Medal is awarded to Government and non-Government individuals or teams by NASA Center Directors for a stellar achievement that supports one or more of NASA's Core Values, when it is deemed to be extraordinarily important and appropriate to recognize such achievement in a timely and personalized manner.

SAM is NASA's second highest award that can be bestowed to a "civilian" (non-government) scientist.


Richard Binzel has been an MIT faculty member for nearly 30 years as a Professor of Planetary Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences and holds a Joint Professor appointment in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.  He is known as one of the world's leading scientists in the study of Pluto and other areas of planetary science that include asteroids and meteorites.

Binzel, who published his first scientific paper at the age of 15, completed his Bachelor's degree in physics at Macalester College.  In 1980, Binzel was one of the first recipients of the American Physical Society’s Apker Award for research achievements by an undergraduate.   He went on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Texas where his research included the first direct mapping of Pluto’s surface, revealing unexplainable features entreating further exploration.  Binzel was honored with a Presidential Young Investigator award from George H. Bush in 1990 and the Harold C. Urey Prize from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences in 1991.  Binzel was named an MIT Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow in 1994 in recognition of his dedication to teaching.

As the inventor of the Torino Scale, a method for categorizing the impact hazard associated with near-Earth objects (NEOs) such as asteroids and comets, his ongoing telescopic research includes the spectral characterization of asteroids posing a potential hazard to Earth as well as those that may be most easily reachable by future robotic and human missions. His scientific analysis has shown the link between major meteorite groups and their formation and source locations. Asteroid number 2873 bears his name, an honor bestowed by the International Astronomical Union in recognition of his contributions to the field. His mapping efforts of Pluto in the 1980s revealed a diverse surface entreating for exploration, finally achieved in 2015 as a co-investigator on NASA’s New Horizons mission. He is a co-investigator on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sample Return Mission where he leads the development of the student-built flight instrument, the Regolith X-ray Imaging Spectrograph (REXIS).

The Mission

OSIRIS-REx seeks answers to the questions that are central to the human experience: Where did we come from? What is our destiny? Asteroids, the leftover debris from the solar system formation process, can answer these questions and teach us about the history of the sun and planets.

The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is traveling to Bennu, a carbonaceous asteroid whose regolith may record the earliest history of our solar system. Bennu may contain the molecular precursors to the origin of life and the Earth’s oceans. Bennu is also one of the most potentially hazardous asteroids, as it has a relatively high probability of impacting the Earth late in the 22nd century. OSIRIS-REx will determine Bennu’s physical and chemical properties, which will be critical to know in the event of an impact mitigation mission.

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