LESIA - Observatoire de Paris

Tribute from LESIA to Toby Owen

Tuesday 7 March 2017

(mise à jour le 12 March 2017)

Tobias Owen – « Toby » for his friends and colleagues – passed away on March 5, in Sacramento, at the age of 80. He was an exceptional scientist, a pioneer in planetary exploration, and also a man of outstanding charisma.

Toby’s relationship with Paris Observatory goes back to the early beginning of the 1970s. While he was a professor at Sony Brook University (NY), he played a very active role in the development of the young planetology group at the Observatory. With Daniel Gautier, Catherine de Bergh, Michel Combes and Thérèse Encrenaz, he initiated many research projects around the composition and structure of planetary atmospheres, using space exploration and ground-based observations. He played a major role in the analysis of space data from the Viking mission to Mars and the Voyager missions to the giant planets. With Jean-Pierre Maillard and the French planetology group, he made a series of major discoveries, in particular about the deuterium abundance in the solar system. In a visionary and multidisciplinary approach, he developed numerous research projects on all families of solar system objects, planets, satellites and comets, using all wavelength spectral ranges, from ground and space.

In the early 1980s, with Daniel Gautier and Wing Ip, Toby became deeply involved in the development of an international space mission, jointly led by the United States and Europe, devoted to the exploration of Saturn and Titan. This project finally became the Cassini-Huygens mission, launched in 1997 and still in operation around Saturn. Beyond its exceptional scientific return, this mission has been an exemplary success in terms of international cooperation between different space agencies.

In addition to his interest in planetology, Toby early developed interest for the origin of life and the search for extraterrestrial life, a research area that has exploded over the past decades. With Donald Goldsmith and David Morrisson respectively, he published two books on this subject, both now in their third edition. He received many honors and awards, including, in 2009, the prestigious Kuiper Prize of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society.

With his French friends and colleagues, at Paris Observatory and beyond, Toby has developed very strong links of scientific cooperation and friendship. In the early 2000s, he joined the High Scientific Council of Paris Observatory. In 2006, with Daniel Gautier and Jean-Pierre Lebreton, he received the Grand Prix Marcel Dassault of the French Academy of Sciences. In 2007, he became Doctor Honoris Causa of Paris Observatory. Toby was strongly in favor of bringing together scientific communities beyond national frontiers. He made numerous visits in France where he had very close friends, in particular Antonella Barucci and Marcello Fulchignoni. He will be deeply missed by all his friends and colleagues, who will remember his generosity, his availability, his kindness, his simplicity and modesty. All his friends and colleagues, at LESIA and at Paris Observatory, want to express their deepest sympathy to his wife Natasha and his family.

Thérèse Encrenaz, Catherine de Bergh, Antonella Barucci, Marcello Fulchignoni, Jean-Pierre Lebreton