Thursday, December 16, 2010

Donald Mount Hunten 1925-2010

One of the leading planetary scientists of the Space Age, Prof. Donald M. Hunten of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory of the University of Arizona, has died of a stroke at age 85.

I have known Don since 1967, when I was still a graduate student in La Jolla. Don, a refugee from Canadian winters, was already well established in the field as a professor at the University of Arizona. He had arrived there in time to join the fledgling Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at its inception, in 1964. His work to that point had centered on the chemistry and physics of Earth’s auroras.

By the time I met him, planetary exploration by spacecraft was under way, and Don had broadened the scope of his research to include the upper atmospheres of the planets. He focused on the interaction of the Sun with the outer fringes of planetary atmospheres; I worked on the chemistry of atmosphere-surface interactions at MIT. Our overlapping interests led to us serving together on a number of NASA advisory committees and on advisory panels of the National Academy of Science, spanning the exploration of Venus and the giant planets, including the potential role of entry probes on the planets and Titan.

Don was a no-nonsense researcher with a keen critical sense; he was always a font of ideas and a hard worker, a researcher whose work merited membership in the prestigious National Academy of Science. Those who got to know him well found a deeper and richer persona: a bassoonist in various groups in Tucson with a deep love of classical music; someone endowed with a sense of humor that merged British and American sensibilities; a respected and successful mentor of generations of outstanding graduate students. I look back on our 43 years of professional interaction and personal friendship, 30 of them as colleagues at LPL, with gratitude for having known him.

I extend my sympathies and condolences to his wife Ann Sprague and his family. They may take some solace from knowing that his professional legacy and his “second family” of students will carry on the work he began and loved.

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