Biography for Dr. Michael J.S. Belton
Michael Belton has been involved in the study of planetary objects, particularly comets, throughout his entire career. Educated first at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and then at the University of California at Berkeley his doctoral thesis on "The Interaction of Type II Comet Tails with the Interplanetary Medium" earned him a Ph.D. degree in 1964. A detailed
vita is available.
While at Kitt Peak he pursued a diverse set of projects: high resolution spectroscopy of molecules in planetary atmospheres to yield the abundances, effective pressures, and temperatures of atmospheric gases; studies of the rotational properties of planets and motions in their atmospheres; the recovery of comets; and mapping of planetary topography through high resolution spectrography from the ground. With a colleague he was able to make the first crude global topographic maps of the surface of Mars. Moving his interests from ground-based studies into space he participated in the Venus-Mercury Mariner 10 mission and the Voyager and Galileo missions to the outer planets. For these missions he focused on ultra-violet spectroscopy and imaging studies. For more than twenty years, from 1978 until 2002, he led the Galileo Imaging Science Team in their high-resolution imaging studies of Venus, Earth's Moon, the asteroids Ida, Gaspra, and Dactyl, the collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter, Jupiter's atmosphere, the Galilean satellites - Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, the small satellites and Jupiter's ring system.
Throughout these studies Belton maintained a strong interest in comets and the problems associated with understanding the nature of the cometary nucleus. This interest was at first focused on a study of comet 1P/Halley. The work began with the search to recover Halley in the late 70's. With the 4-meter telescope on Kitt Peak he and his colleagues found the comet one day later than competing Californian astronomers, his search however, provided the first astrometric positions. Perhaps his best work on the comet followed the Giotto explorations of 1P/Halley in 1986. He was able to rationalize conflicting evidence from space and ground-based observations and derive the "wobbling" spin state of the nucleus. This led to the first accurate map of active areas on the surface of any comet.
His current cometary research seeks to extend these discoveries and he is using observation of different molecules and dust to gain deeper insight into the properties of these regions of activity. He has also helped to develop a concept for a kinetic impactor to explore the regions below the cometary surface. To further these interests he participated as deputy principal investigator on the ill-fated CONTOUR mission and participated, in the same role, in the
mission. Currently he is a member of the scientific teams on the NExT
and EPOXI Discovery Missions of Opportunity.
NExT targets the Stardust spacecraft on an extended mission to comet
9P/Tempel 1, which was the target of the Deep Impact mission, and
took the Deep Impact flyby spacecraft to a successfull flyby of 103P/Hartley 2 in
NExT had a successfull flyby of 9P/Tempel 1 in February 2011. Belton is also involved with the NASA
SDAP program and is involved as a co-investigator on several of these that are
concerned with further analysis of the Deep Impact data set on comet 9P/Tempel
In terms of service to the community Belton is a past chair of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society. Most recently he chaired the first "decadal" study of Solar System Exploration for the National Research Council and a NASA Workshop on the "Scientific Requirements for Mitigation of Hazardous Comets and Asteroids."
He has published over 200 articles on research topics in planetary science (see detailed
bibliography) and, in 1995, he was awarded the Gerard P. Kuiper Prize in Planetary Science by the American Astronomical Society. Also in recognition of his work, minor planet 3498 has been named for him.