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John W. Fountain (1944–2016)

Fountain was co-discoverer of two satellites of Saturn and supervised imagery from the NASA Pioneer 10 and 11 missions to Jupiter and Saturn. He was also well-known for his work in archaeoastronomy.

Published onDec 31, 2022
John W. Fountain (1944–2016)

Photo credit: Helmut Abt

John William Fountain, planetary scientist and archaeoastronomer, died on Tuesday, June 7, 2016, of a lung ailment. He was 72. 

John William Fountain was born on March 12, 1944, in Quincy, Illinois, the son of Gordon and Lorene (Crane) Fountain. Little information is available about his early years, but following graduation from high school, he went to the University of Arizona (UA). At that time, shortly after President Kennedy’s announcement that Americans would walk on the Moon by the end of the decade, only a few scientists were conducting studies of the lunar surface. As an undergraduate, Fountain joined a team lead by Gerard Kuiper, founder of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL) at UA, who were making observations of their own with UA facilities, helping to analyze some of the first lunar images from the Ranger mission, as well as collecting the best available telescopic photos of the Moon from observatories around the world. The high contrast near the Moon’s terminator made combining images difficult. UA astronomer Steve Larson and undergraduate John Fountain spent many tedious hours manually “dodging” the negatives they were printing, brightening the shadow areas and darkening the sunlight parts of the images. From more than 8000 images, the team chose the best 200 or so to produce the Consolidated Lunar Atlas, a major resource for choosing potential lunar landing sites. Fountain earned his B.S. degree in 1966 and stayed on as a research associate with UA and LPL for most of his career.

While Fountain did not pursue a graduate degree himself, he became very active in the planetary science community. For example, Dale Cruikshank acknowledged his help in completing his 1968 Ph.D. thesis, “Infrared Colorimetry of the Moon”. Fountain subsequently supported several NASA planetary missions with Earth-based observations. In the early- to mid-1970s he published a series of papers based on ground-based images of Venus, Mars and Jupiter documenting changes in surface and/or atmospheric features. This experience led to his involvement in the imaging team for NASA’s Pioneer 10 and 11 missions to Jupiter and its scientific publications, as well as several popular-level articles.

Fountain helped resolve a mystery involving two moons of Saturn. Janus was discovered on December 18, 1966, by the French astronomer Audouin Dollfus. Another object, initially thought to be Janus, was discovered by Richard Walker just three days later. In an analysis of all available observations during the 1966 passage of the Earth through the plane of Saturn's rings John Fountain and Stephen Larson demonstrated in a 1977 paper that the latter object, now named Epimetheus, is a separate moon in almost the same orbit as Janus. About every four years one satellite overtakes the other and they exchange orbits. Their conclusion was confirmed later by Voyager 1 images.

From ground-based observations made in 1980, along with Brad Smith, Harold Reitsema and Stephen Larson, Fountain was co-discoverer of Telesto, another satellite of Saturn. It’s a so-called “Tethys Trojan” moon because, along with Calypso, it shares the same orbit as Tethys. Telesto orbits about 60 degrees ahead of Tethys, while Calypso orbits behind Tethys by about 60 degrees. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft imaged Telesto in 2005.

Following retirement, Fountain’s interests turned to archeoastronomy. He made numerous investigations of petroglyphs, demonstrated that many had astronomical connections, and helped protect historically significant sites. For example, in the spring of 2000, he evaluated the survey conducted on the petroglyphic site at Parowan Gap near Parowan Utah. Fountain was also a contributor to the preservation of the Tumamoc Hill site, a prominent landmark west of Tucson with numerous large stone walls that define prehistoric settlements.

Fountain gave many public lectures and frequently arranged field trips to local petroglyph sites for the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society. He created a database of rock art solar markers, showing they are surprisingly common. He also led archaeoastronomy tours for Crow Canyon Archaeological Center and was featured in a local TV production of The Desert Speaks—Shadows of the Ancients. He taught classes in archaeoastronomy for the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society and The Learning Curve of Tucson as well.

Perhaps the most enduring and accessible record of Fountain’s influence on the field of astroarchaeology is Current Studies in Archaeoastronomy: Conversations Across Time and Space, Selected Papers from the Fifth Oxford International Conference at Santa Fe, which he co-edited with Rolf M. Sinclair. It is a compendium of contributions from over 50 researchers that documents the importance of astronomical phenomena to human practices and belief systems throughout history.

In a fitting conclusion to a career that spanned astronomy and archaeoastronomy, Fountain (posthumously) co-authored an article with Helmut Abt describing more than 33 petroglyphs made by Native Americans that suggest an outburst date for the Crab Nebula supernova significantly earlier than Eastern observers recorded.

Fountain received a Public Service Achievement Award from NASA in 1974 and a Pioneer Saturn Special Citation from NASA in 1979. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Astronomical Society, and listed by Marquis Who's Who. He was also an avid member of and bass singer with Sons of Orpheus—The Male Choir of Tucson.


Background information from Helmut Abt, William Hoffmann, Buell Jannuzi, Edward Olszewski, George Rieke, and Thomas Wentzel is gratefully acknowledged. Additional information about Fountain can be found in the book by Helmut Abt, “A Stellar Life”, 2020, Palmetto Publishing.

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